The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care
By Anne Boyer
2019 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Review by Elana Wright
Award-winning American poet Anne Boyer invites us into her reality of living with triple-negative breast cancer in today’s America. With her gorgeous literary style, Boyer shares how she endured the pink ribbon world of the profit-driven medical and pharmaceutical industries which define her treatments. She survives grueling surgery, chemotherapy and radiation while trying to continue to make a living as a part-time literature professor while caring for her teenage daughter as a single mother without disability insurance.
Boyer’s experience of surviving not only breast cancer but also its brutal treatments and their side effects at the age of 41 is shared through her poetic and critical eye. Since she doesn’t have a partner, her close friends take turns taking time off work to be with her when she is sick from her chemotherapy and when she is recovering from her double mastectomy, which has somehow become a drop-by, day surgery. She describes coming home with multiple drains coming out of her chest after her double mastectomy, and going to teach a class just days after her surgery while in severe pain.
In the book’s dream-like chapters, Boyer also offers a historical look at breast cancer medicine from ancient times to today. Her research takes a look back at how women suffered from advanced breast cancer which was only diagnosed once the cancer was undeniably taking over the breast, and then endured radical mastectomies without anesthetic. Boyer also critiques the emergence of pink ribbon charities in the US, which has transformed a disease of a woman’s intimate body parts into an opportunity to make more profit for every kind of product, from cars to toxic chemicals.
Her poetic writing carries us throughout her many reflections on the world of cancer today and the fear, anger, pain, and isolation that it can bring. As she navigates this world, she is inspired by other American women writers and artists who have had breast cancer, from Rachel Carson to Susan Sontag to Audre Lorde to Kathy Acker, but also contemporary American women, from youtubers to bloggers.
I was carried grippingly along by Boyer’s memoir, having also feverishly read these same women writers, artists, and bloggers, in order to figure out how to survive day-by-day as I accompanied my own partner through breast cancer treatment, including surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Boyer shares her vulnerabilities and anxieties, from googling prognoses and chances of recurrence to obsessively following women youtubers and bloggers documenting their scanxiety, their brutal treatments, their ways to find joy, the responses of their families and friends, and even the days leading up to their death from breast cancer, in one case.
As we reflect alongside her on whether she is dying or undying, and what it all means, we gain a much deeper insight into the many things that she exhaustively names in the subtitle of her book, and we realize that breast cancer is all of those things.