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Spelling it Out: Author Reflects on Her Breast Cancer, from A to Z

Book of the Month: October 2015

Book of the Month: October 2015One in every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer; the disease remains the most-diagnosed form of cancer in women and their second-leading cause of death. With so many women touched by this disease, there are bound to be commonalities — similar tests, procedures, and strains, as well as fears, emotions, and surprises. Yet every woman, and every cancer, is unique. How exactly she reacts, where she finds comfort, which messages resonate, and the buzzwords that rankle encompass a singular and personal experience.

In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this and every October, our latest book recommendation is a journalist’s reflection on her own sojourn in the surreal reality that she calls ‘Cancerland.’ The diminutive volume treads a fine line between universalism and individuality, presenting author Madhulika Sikka’s distinct opinion, as told by a confidante and fellow member of a club no one chose to join.

The thematic hook of A Breast Cancer Alphabet is A-to-Z organization. The book contains exactly 26 chapters, each of which centers on a theme that begins with the corresponding letter: ‘A is for Anxiety,’ ‘B is for Breasts,’ and so on. The essays that make up these chapters are concise and compact; some barely break the three-page mark. In fact, quite a bit of the 200-plus pages seem earmarked for breathing room, making space for illustrated deep-rose pages that set off each letter of the visually appealing hardcover. This is not packaged to be a punishing or data-heavy read, but rather a breezy collection that can be picked up and put down again at the reader’s pace.

And although there are topics that veer toward the frivolous, Sikka makes her case for those as being essential to her well-being and, by extension, her story. Indeed, where the author hits hardest is with her honesty — about the unimaginable pain and weakness after a mastectomy procedure, about her inability to identify as a ‘warrior’ or feel like she’s on a ‘journey,’ about her looks being important by virtue of being important to her. The tone is informative without being instructive; if anything, Sikka is gracious in granting the reader frequent permission to feel and do and reject whatever it is she may be discussing.

This book doesn’t set out to tell anyone how to go through cancer. Rather, it’s an open and frank exploration of the disease by someone who learned firsthand the things that other women, and their loved ones and caregivers, did before her. Whether the reader is a woman facing the uncertainty of diagnosis, or is a loved one unsure of what to do or how to be of help, this encouraging essay collection can lend a friendly sense of community and commonality at an isolating time.

A Breast Cancer Alphabet
Madhulika Sikka
Crown Publishers
224 pages; $19.00