- The Diary of a Breast by Elisa Segrave
Faber, 287 pp, £9.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 571 17446 9
Cancer must sell almost as many books as cookery: not just old-fashioned self-help guides to detection or prevention, tips on how to survive the chemotherapy or colostomy (now lavishly illustrated with the kinds of photograph that were once allowed only in medical textbooks), but also a vast range of new-style ‘cancer journals’. These are first-person accounts – diaries, memoirs or letters – that chart the progress of ‘me and my cancer’ from the moment of discovery, through diagnosis and treatment, to life again on the other side. They range in tone from something close to Gothic horror to naive optimism.
Vol. 17 No. 14 · 20 July 1995
Mary Beard’s review of my book The Diary of a Breast (LRB, 6 July) is complimentary and thought-provoking and I thank her for this, but her phrase ‘designer cancer’ is demeaning. If my book had been published posthumously, would she have still used these words? A life-threatening illness is not about fashion. I have survived, but many other women, who started with the same symptoms as I had, have not. In the UK, 15,000 women a year die of breast cancer. Is my own experience to be belittled because I am still alive? Mary Beard makes a distinction between ‘cancer of the flesh’ and ‘cancer on the page’. I also had ‘cancer of the flesh’. Since I am a writer, I wrote about it and I naturally hope that my book will reach as wide an audience as possible. But I would not have chosen to undergo, first, the terror of my life ending halfway through, then the ever-present nagging fear of a recurrence, in order to perform a ‘fashionable’ literary exercise.