There's a saying that "Knowledge is power."
When selecting the next book I will read, several factors prompt my choice: if a book was a recent gift, came at a bargain price, or delves into a compelling topic I’m more likely to crack it open.
I have just finished reading “Cancer Confidential: Backstage Dramas in the Radiation Clinic” 1 by Charles Hayter, MD. None of those factors applied. Charles is a new friend I met in a writing workshop, and we post-retirement authors support each other’s work, so that’s why I bought a copy.
Thankfully, cancer has not yet touched my immediate family, though I recognize it’s just a matter of time until it does. I decided to read these behind-the-scenes stories of people dealing with cancer and death because Charles is both a delightful person with a twinkle in his eye and an expert in a complex field requiring years of study and practice. He was a Radiation Oncologist until his retirement five years ago, so he oozes credibility as far as I’m concerned.
The Emotional Aspects of Medicine
When we discussed our writing projects over lunch in 2019, Charles explained he wanted to show the human side of radiation oncology, a specialty that is seen as highly technical. As well, he sought to address the emotional aspects of medicine that are often not taught in medical school.
Now that it’s published, I expect this book to be a useful resource for learners in the health professions, and a highly informative read for the rest of us. I learned an amazing amount about the trajectories a case of cancer can take in the present day. We enjoy extraordinary treatment possibilities that previous generations could only dream of.
Working through the 16 chapters about serious health issues wasn’t exactly a picnic, so I had to take periodic breaks to remove myself. Though depressing scenarios were interspersed with positive outcomes. Each story is based on Charles’ actual patients – with names and details changed to ensure confidentiality.
I expect that a current cancer patient with a similar diagnosis (or their family members) would
learn a lot about which factors to take into account and the treatment options available. He spares us medical details like blood test results and uses layman’s language when describing symptoms and Xray results. This works beautifully for ordinary readers like me.
The author demonstrates the delicate manoeuvre involved when meshing a cancer’s relentless growth, the interventions available, realistic expectations of outcomes, and hope. How remarkable to sneak a peek behind the medical world’s “curtain” as he spotlights the dynamics of all those moving parts! If only every doctor could exhibit his humanity, medical wisdom, graciousness, and finesse.
Explaining Radiation to Laypeople
He makes it a priority to educate the reader about myths and outdated ideas about what radiation can and cannot do when treating cancer. It was first used in 1903 (like a sledgehammer) and over the last 120 years its application has been researched and tweaked extensively.
In a masterful stroke of writing style, Charles ties together all the chapters with a thread – his own father’s illness. As a retired doctor himself (who lived across the country), it was a challenge for the son to keep tabs on the elder’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Having studied memoir-writing myself, I recognize the balancing act the author faced: “How much dirty laundry and painful family discord should I include? Am I stepping on toes if I share too much detail? Will my reader benefit from actual events and conversations or am I just seeking catharsis?”
In my opinion, he strikes just the right note. Intergenerational expectations and communication are always complicated – even when everybody’s relatively healthy. Throwing a devastating downward spiral into the mix adds tension and gloom.
As an effective metaphor for death, the author periodically describes a shadowy character in a black
robe, who slinks into a hospital room and sits on a chair in the corner, smiling in anticipation of a new victim. When the patient’s cancer is in remission, Death gives up and disappears. Used sparingly, I found this device added a touch of gallows humour to a deadly serious topic.
A Worthwhile Read
As well as being useful for those with a new cancer diagnosis, this book will appeal to educated general
readers interested in a behind-the-scenes look at modern medicine, and anyone appreciating well-written memoir.
There’s a saying that “Knowledge is power.” With its gentle writing style, genuine scenarios, and medically-informed outlook, this book dispenses knowledge very well indeed.
1 Charles Hayter, Cancer Confidential: Backstage Dramas in the Radiation Clinic (Toronto, ON: AevoUTP, 2022)