Reading the memoirs of someone battling a terrible disease always makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. There’s something about reading the details of an illness that seems a lot like intruding on an intensely painful, private experience.
Jennie Nash’s chronicle of her struggle with breast cancer, The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming And Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer, produces that kind of squirmy intimacy. Nash takes us with her on her long journey, from the paranoia-fueled doctor’s visit that leads to the discovery of her cancer to the mastectomy and subsequent breast reconstruction.
The story also follows her high school friend’s parallel battle with lung cancer. Nash spares few details, including a pretty graphic description of her reconstructive surgery, which involved taking tissue from her stomach and using it to build a new breast.
And yet the tale is never overwhelming or off-putting. Nash is frank, but she’s not without a sense of humor. Though she’s aware of the extra weight her illness puts on all the other aspects of her life – from personal relationships to her decision to wear a low-cut dress to a church auction – her story never feels preachy. Nash doesn’t seem to regard her cancer experience as something separate from the rest of her life, but as part of who she is as a person.
The book is broken down into a series of “lessons,” with headings such as the one that gives the book its title, as well as “Daddy Can’t Always Keep the Monsters Away, but He Can Fold the Laundry” and “It’s Important to Eat Cake.” Each illustrates how Nash is able to get through her diagnosis and surgeries, with the love and support of her friends and family and, despite the titles, none of the tales is cloying or syrupy. Though her story has a happy ending, she also shows us that not all cancer battles end so well, and even a successful struggle can be long and painful.
Nash shows all and tells all, but the book never makes the reader feel like a voyeur. Instead, Nash treats her readers like friends whom she has invited into her life to share her story, and to help her see the experience more clearly. More likely than not, you’ll be glad for the invitation.