The Fault in Our Stars: Writing About Cancer

Writing about Cancer means you have to know how to laugh at yourself. There is a LOT of drama involved with cancer, but all GREAT dramas come with comic relief. Since it is unlikely other people will laugh at your cancer (it just seems crass), you will have to provide your own comedy.

I have had some issues writing about cancer. A lot of blockage and a lot of procrastination. There have been month-long droughts in this blog. And this blog is the easiest way for me to write about cancer, largely because I make fun of myself every chance I get.

I recently started reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The reason I haven't finished reading it is because I was reading the "look inside" clip on Amazon, and now I have to wait for the actual book to ship before I can read the rest. So far it is excellent. A cultural phenomenon. Why? Because it is hilarious! Green has the gall to poke fun of cancer, even its darkest facets, and people gobble it up because no one in their right mind can get through those depressing cancer-victim-journeys-toward-death-with-a-smile-so-family-is-at-peace narratives more than once. (Anyone read My Sister's Keeper twice? Anyone??)

** Since last working on this blog I have FINISHED reading The Fault in Our Stars. I will commence reviewing the book without spoilers because I hate spoilers.

Wow. I have to (kind of) take back what I said before. Good writing about cancer must include laughter. GREAT writing about cancer must inspire both laughter and tears. This book made me laugh my ass off and cry my eyes out. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are two of the most genuine and emotionally compelling contemporary characters written into life and they are scribed indelibly in my heart. Hazel Grace is a teen with thyroid cancer, (and as far as I know may be the ONLY fictional character with thyroid cancer) which has metastasized to her lungs, requiring her to carry an oxygen tank and leaving her perpetually breathless. Augustus Waters traded a leg to bone cancer. They fall in love. This is NOT a typical teen romance.  A) There are no vampires or werewolves. B) And yet, these are no ordinary teenagers.

The protagonist and her love are lovable because of their attitudes towards their illnesses. These are not people who take life for granted, dwell on the bad, or waste time feeling sorry for themselves. While the few angsty, volatile moments they have are entirely understandable, for the most part these are the people we want to be (or would want to be) in moments of crises. They neither rail against fate nor submit to it. They allow themselves to be ill, but do not let it change who they are. They are (almost) impossibly strong in weakness, joyful despite pain, defiant in the face of death, and somehow Green accomplishes this without the slightest hint of bravado, or sap, or other excessive emotional narrative traps easily fallen into. Every bit of dialogue and action stays true to the characters, with whom you fall more in love with every page-turn. Isaac, who initially read as a simple foil character to the heroes and somewhat obvious symbol of social and psychological blindness, despite his more realistic and less appealing sensibilities, becomes a third unforgettable, about whom you will truly care.


So here is the caveat. This is NOT an easy book. In some ways, it was one of the most difficult books I have read, in terms of emotional and psychological impact. I won't go into detail, but the sadness quotient is comparable to that of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina, Tinkers, The Book Thief, A Tale of Two Cities, or The Women of Brewster Place, to name a few books that have caused me to sob for a long time and to reexamine life and its meaning in a philosophical, often existential way.

As the title indicates (a quote from Julius Caeser) there is a star-crossed lovers element to the plot. This is not only Green being clever, but also him hinting to his audience: "prepare yourself for a not-so-happy ending." So I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that at some point in the book you will be very, very sad. And possibly horribly angry at Green for having such an impact on you with his beautiful language and for not using that power to make you feel cloud-floating happy. All I can say is DO NOT GIVE UP ON THE BOOK.

I  had a very Gwyneth-Paltrow-as-Emma struggle ("I love John!" "I hate John!") with the author at the crisis. I put down my book and cried and could not return to it for another day. But I was very grateful when I did return for the conclusion. Green fully redeems himself for the heartache caused by the words of wisdom encapsulated in the last pages. Re-reading them for the sake of this blog causes me to tear up.

Green's writing is unequivocal evidence of having experienced personal loss. But he learned something from this loss important enough to pass on to the world. He tells us that that horrible, heart-wrenching, gut-stabbing pain we feel when losing, having lost or remembering the loss of someone we love is completely worth it. That we would not regret a second of time with that person or the smallest measurement of affection because it means that we loved with passion, we truly lived.

Cancer takes away your sense of security.

But it also gave something back to me. It gave me an appreciation for every day unlike what I had before. It gave me an intense desire to spend as much time as possible with my friends and family, to never waste a moment. There are people in my life whom I do not believe I could live without. I believe their loss would tear my soul to pieces. I believe it will be the most devastating pain in my life. And I could not be more grateful.