You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has not been touched by cancer or had a loved one who suffered through a diagnosis. Unfortunately, it is the six degrees of cancer that makes this illness all too common. Even with its proliferation, many people try to discern meaning from their experiences with cancer to help others deal with a similar type of diagnosis. Many doctors, patients, and family members have taken pen to paper to distill their experiences into legible stories of suffering, hope and a glimmer of humanity.
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At their core, as Dr. Atul Gawande says, "No matter what measures are taken, doctors will sometimes falter, and it isn't reasonable to ask that we achieve perfection. What is reasonable is to ask that we never cease to aim for it." Attaching the highest levels of dignity to patients, survivors, or family members’ experiences must be a continual goal.
In some of the books we have chosen below, you’ll find harrowing stories from some of the most fearless and determined people who have lived through or died from cancer. All these stories may provide touching, sad and uplifting anecdotes for anyone who may be facing a tough diagnosis and treatment ahead of them.
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Best Books for Cancer Patients
The eight books listed below don’t mince words about the tough attitudes that are sometimes required to endure the pain of cancer. But they can also give frank advice and sharp humor to keep you and loved ones hopeful.
1. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, MD
In Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande describes how physicians struggle with age, fragility, and mortality. When providing cancer treatment for their patients, doctors often treat life as a destination rather than a journey.
Here, clinicians and caregivers face a flawed medical system that treats the end-of-life inhumanely. Gawande shares his experiences and vision that he embraces to use medicine as a practice for the patient, not toward the prescription.
You can read our full Being Mortal review for more.
2. Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer by Morhaf Al Achkar, MD, PhD
Author Dr. Morhaf Al Achkar is a teacher, family physician, and researcher. He is also a Stage IV lung cancer patient. In Roads to Meaning and Resilience, Dr. Achkar recounts the stories of 39 of his terminal cancer patients.
The book offers insights into each patient's journey, which are all unique and candid, but hopeful. Dr. Achkar's own diagnosis with cancer at age four helped him relate to his patients with both personal and clinical perspectives.
3.The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
This famous fictional novel features a young woman named Hazel dealing with terminal cancer. The book’s mushy heartfelt center focuses on understanding that those who are dying of cancer still live, love, and yearn.
With humor and grace (literally, as Hazel’s middle name is Grace), we witness her life-changing moment when she meets fellow cancer patient Augustus. They become two young lovers, both managing the stress of cancer with avid frankness and gallows humor.
Green's novel is a welcome reprieve from the clichéd coming-of-age story, simply because not every story has a happy ending. The novel has been adapted into a critically acclaimed movie.
4. The Upside of Cancer: How a Terrifying Illness Can Lead You to a New Life by Christopher Foster
Embracing our fears can sometimes be a catalyst for better living. In this book, Foster encourages the viewpoint which sees the struggle with cancer as both a benefit and gift.
As a kind of homage to the philosophy of yin and yang, it is the diagnosis of cancer that reveals a desire for life. The author hopes to help you see that there is still so much beauty behind the chaos. In fear, you will find inspiration.
5. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, MD
When Breath Becomes Air is a posthumously published memoir. Dr. Kalanithi is a student of literature, a surgeon, husband, and father of an infant daughter. As a brain surgeon in residency, Dr. Kalanithi discovers that he has Stage IV lung cancer, and must give up his hard-earned career to focus on living in his last few years with his wife and newborn daughter.
In the afterword, his widow Lucy Kalanithi reveals that "we knew that one trick to managing a terminal illness is to be deeply in love—to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful." So, the mistake would be to think that this book is only about dying from cancer. Instead, life is not the sum of our experiences, but the experiences themselves.
You can read our full When Breath Becomes Air review for more.
6. Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
From day one to remission, Marchetto chronicles her diagnosis with breast cancer. Because her approach is illustrative and bent on humor, the levity of the book may be off-putting to some.
Yet, with plenty of wit, charm, and a bit of New York sass, Marchetto gives you the low down on life in the face of cancer. For many, Cancer Vixen is a welcome reprieve.
7. A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science and Cancer by Mary Elizabeth Williams
For those of you considering immunotherapy to treat cancer, there can be optimism found in Williams' account. With some history, a ton of humor, and insight, the author recounts her struggle with melanoma.
Towards the end of the book, her tone changes, remembering the friends she has lost to cancer. At once, she is grateful for science that cured her, but she laments the loss of friends.
8. Through Fire and Rain: Surviving the Impossible with Love, Music and Precision Medicine by MaryAnn Anselmo and Joseph Anselmo
Between 2012 and 2013, MaryAnn Anselmo experienced a lifetime of tragedies. First, she suddenly loses her son. A month later, a car accident nearly kills her and her father, leaving her unable to sing and work as a jazz singer. And then she is diagnosed with glioblastoma.
Although genomic sequencing was relatively new at the time, she gambled on gene research over chemotherapy, and miraculously survived. Her story isn't just harrowing, it's inspirational.
Best Books for Loved Ones & Family Members of Cancer Patients
Listed below are a few books to help you find the right things to say or do. For you parents, we have found a few simple illustrative as well as some age-appropriate books to lend a hand.
9.Their Cancer – Your Journey by Anne Orchard
Author Anne Orchard offers a few tips on self-care for the caregiver. She also reminds you to maintain hopefulness. When doctors give your loved ones the "odds" of survival, you do not know which side they might land on--the percentage of those who survive or those who die.
This book helps to remind folks that cancer is not a death sentence. Their Cancer – Your Journey is recommended for adult caregivers.
10. Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know by Lori Hope
If you do not know what to do for or say to cancer patients that may be helpful, you might find relief in this book’s very sensible approach.
Hope’s book is segmented as a quick guide to specific topics, or an educational book that you can read from front to back. This book is recommended for those who need some extra guidance in helping your loved one.
11. Both Sides Now by Ruth Pennebaker
Cancer can unravel even the most headstrong and dependable teenager. In Pennebaker's book, teenager Liza transforms from a got-it-together kind of girl to a reckless young woman after learning about her mother's cancer diagnosis.
Suddenly, she becomes someone new and untested in the face of something unsettling and raw, in stark contrast to everything she has planned out. Both Sides Now is recommended for teens.
12. Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan
Hannigan weaves together a story about an upstart fourth-grader, Ida B. and all the trials and tribulations facing a 10-year-old attempting to live, quite literally, her best life.
If the story were only about cancer and Ida's reaction to it, you wouldn’t be able to step back and see the patchwork of life that Katherine Hannigan intended. Written to parallel life's lessons with a mother's cancer, Ida B. forges her own journey. Ida B. is written for children ages 9-12. You can read our recommendations for children's books about cancer if you're looking for more age-appropriate books.
13. The Year My Mother Was Bald by Ann Speltz
Author Ann Speltz knows that journaling can be an excellent method to work through your own feelings.
Without being too cutesy or juvenile, the book’s protagonist "Clare" can help you to talk with your kids about cancer. The Year My Mother Was Bald is recommended for ages 9-12.
14. Nowhere Hair: Explains Your Cancer and Chemo to Kids by Sue Glader
Having any kind of cancer is difficult to explain to your kids, especially the littlest ones. Using rhyme, some humor, and a touch of seriousness, author Sue Glader can help you tell your kids what’s going on with your hair.
Nowhere Hair is recommended for ages 3-8 and is available in Spanish.
15. When Someone You Love Has Cancer: A Guide to Help Kids Cope by Alaric Lewis, O.S.B.
Illustrative books paint stories through pictures and simple wording to help kids process some of the information they are receiving.
Here, the author has chosen to cover topics about cancer, so you can easily omit parts that don't seem relevant. When Someone You Love is recommended for children 4-8.
16. The Goodbye Cancer Garden by Janna Matthies
Breast cancer can be a tough subject for the little ones. So, author Janna Matthies uses illustrations to help explain the scary x-rays, chemotherapy, hair loss, and doctor visits.
Here, a pumpkin patch (or garden) is used as a visual to help your little ones know when mommy will be better again. The Goodbye Cancer Garden is recommended for ages 3-8.
Everyone Can Be Affected By Cancer
Cancer is a family diagnosis, and rarely just impacts the patient. However, as a patient or family member, you have a choice as well. A lot of these books are brave entries in the world of self-help and medical educational literature space.
They are designed to help people feel less alone and more empowered to live day-by-day with a vague future ahead of them. Illness may have ways of alienating people, but as these authors note, humanity can help you find a way to stay close to your loved ones and stay hopeful together.
You can check out our recommendations for films about cancer, gift ideas for cancer patients, and movies about breast cancer if you're looking for more ways to support a loved one (or yourself) during treatment or remission.