Things you can read about cancer and grief

For various reasons, I’ve been reading a few books (edit: and articles, blogs, etc.) that touch, in different ways, on cancer and grief. I’m collecting these together in the hope they may be useful for others who, like me to some extent, learn by reading about others’ experiences and reflections.

When breath becomes air is a powerful book, a reflection on life and death by a surgeon who became a patient. Well worth it.

The year of magical thinking is the account of someone left behind, someone grieving after the death of long beloved family members. It is honest, and raw, and does not settle for easy answers.

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, is one I read a while ago, so it’s faded a little from memory. What I remember though is the courage  with which he bore down on the concrete expression of his convictions.

Hope beyond cure is a book written by David McDonald, on his experience with lung cancer. It wasn’t a book I expected to appreciate, but I was glad I’d read it.

The friend is a powerful personal essay by someone who went through a harrowing death of his partner. It’s a very real account of the mess that can happen.

Because of the way things are, there’ll be a few other books I’ll add to this list when I finish them.


When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi was a very talented surgeon, a brilliant scientist, an exquisite writer and by the account of those who loved him, a warm, caring person.

His book, When Breath Becomes Air, is an exceptional one. It is an account of his experience as a talented neurosurgeon at the top of his field, ready to reap the rewards of years of study, when he discovers that he has stage IV lung cancer.

It is not an easy read. It is an honestly written book though. He does not shy away from the day to day pain, or the overarching terrors. Nor does he seek false comfort in the easy answers. Instead he simply recounts his own thinking through, his own struggles as he deals with his approaching death. I found that I had to pause often reading it, particularly in the afterward written by his wife, that recounts his final days. It is not an easy read.

But the easy is not necessarily the good. This is a book worth reading.

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

… as I sat there, I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context. In the actual situations where one encounters these questions, it becomes a necessarily philosophical and biological exercise.

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany-a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters-and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.

My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.

Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

I had passed from the subject to the direct object of every sentence of my life.

The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, deaths’ approach. Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows.

There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss. Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.

Murdoch’s Pirates

Murdoch’s Pirates is a fascinating read. It tells a story about a company that was owned by News Corp, that may have hacked key pieces of technology produced by its competitors, in direct corporate espionage.

It’s always interesting with books like this, to wonder how close they came, or didn’t come, to a lawsuit. The fact that Murdoch’s Pirates is still available on Amazon at the time of writing makes me think that it managed to go relatively unscathed; it’s easy to imagine that if it had been worth bringing a lawsuit, it might have been shut down.

I’ll close with a quote – see if you can spot the sentence the lawyers put in:

Taken together, the controversies at NDS, News International and News America Marketing paint a pattern of failed accountability within large segments of News Corporation. That suggests part of the problem lies with directors and senior management. But fixing a sick management culture requires more than shutting down newspapers or shredding troubled business units. This is the underlying problem presented by the split of News Corporation. Good NewsCo and Bad NewsCo will be run by executives and board members whose actions or lack of action were instrumental in creating the management culture that allowed the scandals of the last decade and a half to develop.

Chase Carey, who will run the dominant entertainment arm under Murdoch, was the News executive given the task of overseeing NDS. Chief financial officer David DeVoe, former group counsel Arthur Siskind, and James and Lachlan Murdoch have all been directors of NDS. There is no suggestion that they were aware of any of the actions of the Operational Security team. Rather, the question is whether they should have been aware.

The Revenant, The Viceroy’s House

The Revenant

 A ‘revenant’ is someone who returns, in particular from the dead. It’s an apt title for Di Caprio’s star vehicle, a story of a wildsman helping a group of trappers. Things go awry, and when one of his companions convinces the others to abandon him, after murdering his son, he faces impossible odds in his quest for justice.

It’s an interesting piece, and the final scene is more satisfying than a simple fight to the death (although there is one). Not one I’d recommend particularly, but not terrible.

The Viceroy’s house

The Viceroy’s house is the story of the partition of India, and a love story between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. It’s an important topic, and a powerful one. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to its material.

The love story is … not given quite enough air time to breathe, so that it feels pro forma, rather than earned. The story of the partition of India is the more gripping one, and the movie casts Mountbatten as the noble fool, struggling to achieve a just outcome when in fact he’s been played by forces outside his ken.

Whether that’s true or not is a question I don’t know the answer to, because I don’t know the history well enough. There’s an article in The Guardian that argues the historical narrative underlying the movie is wrong; there’s probably more out there. Regardless, if you’re interested in the history of partition, I’d recommend going with a good history book, rather than this movie.


Moanna is a beautiful film. It doesn’t seem to have quite achieved the popularity of Let it go Frozen, but it has a catchy soundtrack (by Lin-Manuel Miranda), and a story that features a heroine travelling into a dark and forbidden realm, to save her tribe.

The harder part, though, is the cultural appropriation. This isn’t something I’m qualified to speak on, but this article in The Smithsonian I think reflects a range of views, that there is both good and bad in the movie.


Mahana is a beautiful film. It tells the story of Simeon Mahana, grandson of a domineering grandfather who holds iron sway over his family. He wants freedom, and so he challenges his grandfather – that leads, tragically and painfully, to his entire immediate family being cast out.

There is suffering, in the regions they’re cast into, but joy too. It’s there that Simeon gains the strength to challenge his grandfather; so that when a new conflict threatens to roil between the Mahanas and their rival family, Simeon is able to put it to rest.

It’s a beautiful film, and worth watching.



Mahana is a powerful movie, about a Maori boy growing up in a family of shearers, under a domineering grandfather.

Sometimes it feels like the young boy wants to connect with his grandfather, at other times to overthrow him. That’s understandable; relationships are complicated. But it’s a well put together movie, that doesn’t seek to wrap things up neatly. And there’s a beautiful love story in there too, although it’s not the one you’re thinking of.

Lies, Incorporated

Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politicsby Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters is an interesting book. I’ve been reading a few books on media recently (including The Attention Merchants and Rupert Murdoch). I’d hoped that Lies Incorporated would be an insight into the relationship between other forms of power and media.

To some extent it is. It talks about how particular groups can use think-tanks and other organisation to influence public debate, through the media and other channels.

Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t a deep dive into the theory, or framework of how that might work. Instead it steps through individual case studies, one by one. Tragically, these are all so similar that the repetition doesn’t engender deeper understanding.

There are some interesting anecdotes though. This is interesting if you’re researching one of the particular topics, and it has a particular depth on smoking, but otherwise this isn’t one I’d recommend.

… in 1935, during “the last two weeks of June”, a flood of eight hundred thousand “letters and wires heaped up in congressional offices.” This would have been an impressive display of public interest in the issue, except the messages were fake. After receiving hundreds of messages, Pennsylvania congressman Denis Driscoll thought they seemed irregular. He replied to several of his constituents only to be told they had not sent him the telegrams.

These fake constitute contacts led to an investigation headed by then Senator and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. It found that Western Union had coordinated with Associated Gas and Electric to send the fake messages. Many of the names were taken “from the early pages of the city directory.” Others were acquired by paying “a messenger boy named Elmer” three cents per signature secured for the project.


These letters [from an NAACP Branch, a women’s group and an ageing advocacy group] were forgeries–created by a public affairs firm, Bonner & Associates, which had been subcontracted by the ACCCE. The firm ultimately claimed the fraudulent letters were the work of a rogue employee, who was terminated, and went back to business as usual.