Book Review: But Hope is Longer

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2014-06-26

BOOK REVIEW

But Hope is Longer: Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer by Tamara Levine, Second Story Press, 2012

Review by Anne Rochon Ford

But Hope is Longer coverWith But Hope is Longer, Tamara Levine joins a growing number of Canadian feminists writing first-person accounts of breast cancer. Sharon Batt’s ground-breaking Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer (Gynergy/Ragweed Press, 1994) was perhaps the first of this group, tackling the idea that a breast cancer “industry” was having an important impact on the information that is—and is not—passed on to breast cancer patients. Also published that year was Rosalind MacPhee’s Picasso’s Woman: A Breast Cancer Story (Kodansha International, 1996), a much more personal and less overtly political memoir written with a poet’s sensibilities. Shortly after came Penelope (Penny) Williams’ That Other Place: A Personal Account of Breast Cancer (Dundurn, 1996); again a personal account, but written in a style that did not gloss over some of the more difficult realities of life as a breast cancer patient. Williams also wrote Breast Cancer: Landscape of an Illness (Penguin Canada, 2004), a book that took more chances than her first insofar as it tackled tough issues such as metastatic disease as well as some of the controversies in diagnosis and treatment that were gaining attention in 2004.

There were others, but these authors stand out for me as leaders in having taken chances by talking about some of the hardships and realities of a breast cancer diagnosis in an era when women were just “coming out” to talk about their experiences.

So what does Levine’s book, But Hope is Longer: Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer add to this library?

In a world awash with pink ribbons and where figuring out where to find trusted sources of information on the Internet requires not only scientific knowledge but almost infinite patience, a woman with a diagnosis of breast cancer today is in a somewhat different “country” (as Levine calls it) than the one in which Sharon Batt and others found themselves in the mid-1990s. Advances in conventional treatments for the disease (what celebrity breast cancer surgeon Dr. Susan Love calls the “slash, burn and poison approach” to treatment) have moved at a snail’s pace. In contrast, support for women who learn they have breast cancer has improved.

We know much more, for example, about the benefits of integrative or complementary approaches, which have been shown to mitigate some of the nasty effects of treatment and may even help prevent a recurrence. Soon after her diagnosis, Levine chose an integrative approach—integrating holistic practices and practitioners into her cancer care. In so doing, and in writing about it, she makes an important contribution by showing readers not only how it is possible but also how advantageous it has been for her.  

An Ottawa-based adult educator and literacy activist, Tamara Levine was 58 at the time of her diagnosis. She was in the shower when she felt “the smooth contours of a lump the size of a walnut that seemed to have sprung from nowhere.” The cancer was classified as a 3 on an aggressivity scale of 1 to 3, with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery following. She also experienced a rare complication from radiation that briefly affected her lungs and heart. The book chronicles her journey through treatment and beyond and also provides practical information for women going through similar experiences.

Encouraged by publisher and friend Margie Wolf of Second Story Press, Levine took what had begun as a series of letters to friends written around the time of her diagnosis and treatment and turned them into chapters that, for the most part, flow smoothly in style between reflections, updates, and practical advice. Having found that letters could transport her to “a place of healing like almost nothing else,” she “dug deeper...to fill in the stories behind and surrounding the letters...peeling off the layers of my cancer journey and reflecting on what I had learned” after treatments ended.

Because she worked not only with an oncologist and other conventional medical specialists, but also with a naturopathic oncologist, she is able to offer invaluable advice and insight on how to navigate these two worlds. She also wisely chose to interview all the members of her team for her book, asking them how they view breast cancer today, what works within the system, what needs to change, and about their views on integrating conventional and complementary methods. She “lucked out” in having an exceptional group of caregivers who treated her with dignity as a patient, and cooperated fully in agreeing to be interviewed for the book. The snippets of interviews with these caregivers provide some of the most compelling parts of the book. 

Levine was equally fortunate in having a warm and loving family and a wide network of friends who helped her continuously and generously throughout her ordeal. We should all be so lucky in the care we receive, but of course some, perhaps too many, aren’t. My only caveat in recommending this book is that for a woman who does not have such a network and/or is less fortunate in the medical care providers she has, when she reads of Levine’s good fortune, she could feel some alienation because of her own situation.

But it is a small caveat about an otherwise terrific read. Levine set out to write the book not just to chronicle her own journey with breast cancer, but also with the express intent of “inspiring others who are dealing with other cancers or catastrophic illnesses.” In this regard, the book is both intensely personal and reflective, as well as being extremely practical and helpful. Were I to find or be told of a health problem such as Levine experienced with her cancer diagnosis, I would be as likely to go back to her book as to scour the Internet for information and call on medical friends for help. Thank you, Tamara Levine, for writing a book for our times, one that is right for and reflective of the second decade of the 21st century. 

Anne Rochon Ford is the Executive Director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network and in the mid-1990s was on the founding board of Willow: Ontario Breast Cancer Support Network.