10 Books To Read If You’re Battling Cancer

by Dina Gachman

There is no “right” way to deal with cancer. It’s a diagnosis that turns your life inside out and sideways. There will be days when you feel lonely, hopeless, and afraid, and others when you might just feel courageous and full of fight. Some days you might get Zen, and others you’ll feel so angry you could pummel a yoga mat to pieces.

I never understood this until my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer last spring. If my sisters and I were experiencing a tsunami of horrible emotions (shock, rage, sadness so profound you can’t breathe), our mom was experiencing those emotions at a level we may never understand, even though we try. Even though we’re right there with her. Cancer is awful. It’s the great leveler, as they say. And I finally, unfortunately, fully understand the power of those two simple words: Fuck Cancer. Sometimes it’s really all you can say.

But you can survive it. That survival doesn't always mean you have a positive attitude and a strong resolve to be upbeat or listen to meditation apps or pin inspirational Oprah quotes to the fridge. Screw that. Be angry, be sad, be ridiculous — be whatever you need to be to get you through. We tried the Zen route with our mom early on, but it turns out that what really helps her most is the healing comedy of Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. So we stopped downloading the meditation apps and started texting her videos of Key & Peele’s “Aerobics Meltdown” or Amy Schumer’s “Babies & Bustiers” sketch instead. Whatever works, right?

There are plenty of books out there about surviving cancer: spiritual tracts, comedic memoirs, medical self-help manifestos. What helps one person might piss someone else off. What makes one person laugh might make another feel introspective. The choice is yours, and there’s no right choice.

So here are 10 books that might bring comfort if you’re battling cancer. And if not, there’s always Amy Schumer.

1. Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto

This graphic memoir is funny and emotional. The bright pops of color definitely help, and the author’s story about her battle with breast cancer manages to be both honest and humorous.

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2. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

If spirituality is what you crave, there’s no better book than this. It’s a life raft for whatever struggle plagues you: illness, heartbreak, loneliness. Chödrön can be funny, but this is definitely more Zen, less humor. It’s a beautiful book about opening your heart, no matter what happens in life.

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3. Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg

You have to love this title. Like Cancer Vixen, it’s an irreverent, humorous graphic memoir about one woman’s battle with breast cancer.

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4. Picture Your Life After Cancer by Karen Barrow (editor)

Six years ago, the New York Times asked people who had survived cancer to submit their photos and answer the question, “How is your life different after cancer?” The result is a book of photos and essays that will inspire you, humble you, and lift your spirits.

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5. Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen

A book about healing and illness written by a physician and therapist who battled longtime chronic illness. It’s about finding inner peace and strength during the toughest of times. If you’re OK going a little new age, check it out.

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6. Everything Changes by Kairol Rosenthal

Rosenthal was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her late 20s, and when she emerged from treatment she became a patient advocate and traveled the country talking to people in their 20s and 30s who were battling cancer. It’s part guidebook, part memoir, and it includes advice about everything from dating to coping with pain.

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7. Cancer Schmancer by Fran Drescher

You can imagine Drescher’s signature nasal whine as you read her memoir about her experience with uterine cancer. She talks about her diagnosis and recovery, and she tackles tough topics with humor and humanity.

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8. It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner is one of the most beloved comedians to emerge from Saturday Night Live. She helped pave the way for Tina and Amy and Kate. The 20th anniversary edition of her memoir has a resource guide for people living with cancer and a tribute by Radner’s former colleagues at SNL. This one is about healing through humor, and it’ll make you love Radner even more.

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9. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukerjee

If humor is not your thing, maybe this Pulitzer Prize-winning book will do. It’s kind of like a biography of cancer, and physician and researcher Mukherjee traces cancer’s origins and looks at modern treatments and breakthroughs around the world.

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10. Bald in the Land of Big Hair by Joni Rodgers

Another great title. Rodgers’ memoir is funny, poignant, and honest. It’s about overcoming whatever obstacles life throws at you, with chapter titles like "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" to keep things light.

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So take your pick: There’s humor, spirituality, cartoons, and Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction. Hopefully they help get you through, and remind you that you’re not alone. As Gilda Radner once said, “I've learned what I can control is whether I am going to live a day in fear and depression and panic, or whether I am going to attack the day and make it as good a day, as wonderful a day, as I can.”