In Cancerland… and back again

Canadian journalist Libby Znaimer’s no-holds-barred account of living with breast cancer.

That’s a lump,” I say aloud, in bed, in the middle of the night. “A lump,” I repeat first softly and then louder. My husband wakes up. He can feel it too. “You’re right,” Doug whispers. “Thank goodness you found it.

So begins Libby Znaimer’s newly released book In Cancerland – Living Well is the Best Revenge (Key Porter), a candid, intimate, at times humorous and sometimes terrifying account of living with breast cancer.

Unlike most high-profile memoirs, Libby writes about many of the events overtaking her life as they unfold – without the benefit of hindsight – lending a sense of urgency to her struggle to find the best and most timely medical care.

In addition to this memoir, Libby also wrote a column “The Lump” for the National Post which drew over 1,200 email responses from people grappling with similar issues. In one case, a woman wrote to say that her sister found a lump that turned out to be cancer – and that had she had done the self-exam only after reading the column. “I was absolutely bowled over by how many people wrote to share their experiences,” Libby says.

Navigating the health care system
In Cancerland offers a step-by-step example of how to navigate the health care system, passing on to readers some of the latest information on breast cancer and how it is treated in Canada. It also discusses some of the very personal and emotional issues – not to mention difficult medical decisions – involved in facing up to cancer.

“In the beginning the scariest thing for me was how to proceed,” Libby says. “Who to call? How to get the best care, the soonest possible appointment?”

The role of your GP is critical, she says, adding, “If you’ve got a GP plugged into the right hospitals and care, it makes all the difference. Your GP is the entry point to the health care system, and he or she can be of an immense help by explaining what the process is and what the next steps should be.”

In her book Libby also talks about how a recent series of mammograms (received only ten weeks before she discovered the lump in her breast) had been given the “all-clear” only to have it turn out not to be so. Apparently her films had been misread by the radiologist.

Because of this experience, Libby emphasizes the importance of finding the best possible screening program. “First of all, not all mammograms are the same,” she says. “Digital mammography, for example, is better for younger women with denser breasts. Also, some very good high risk screening programs are available – it’s so important to talk to your GP to find out your options and to determine if you’re high risk.”

For people affected by breast cancer, she also recommends finding a good support group such as Willow Breast Support Canada which provides free information and emotional support.