Kate Bowler, a professor at the school of divinity at Duke, had a baby with her childhood sweetheart before she began to feel stabbing pains in her stomach. She lost two stone, took lots of antacid, and visited doctors for three months before she was finally diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Here she tells us why she felt compelled to write about her experience. 

Kate Bowler

Kate Bowler

Cancer will not define me.

I started writing when I realized that my illness—a sudden Stage IV cancer diagnosis—was about to define my life. And I hate the idea of leaving the world as “the cancer patient.” I want my son to remember me for who I am and how I understand this messy, beautiful world. Writing all this down ensures he has my words, and not my illness, to remember me by.

Chemotherapy is kind of the worst.

Contrary to the glamour you see on General Hospital, being a hospital patient is not all surgeon love triangles and improbably attractive nurses. Treatment days are arduous, sometimes terrifying, and the exact opposite of what I imagined I’d be doing with my 30s. Writing was a way to take stock of the beauty and the horror of what I was seeing every day, and especially gave me the chance to revel in the ridiculous. Like how consistently I stalked a former US president who happened to be getting treatment in the same cancer center.

People need better words.

Everyone wants to say and do the right thing, but I have found that people often react to feeling helpless by saying less than comforting things. Dealing with grief and tragedy is hard for pretty much all of us, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on doing it well. For example, telling me that “Everything happens for a reason” means I need to find an explanation for why I might not live to see my son grow up. It requires that parents have a take-away lesson for why they might lose a child or face a disability. Instead of explaining away the pain, I love when people simply give the gift of presence. I am a person to be loved, not a problem to be solved. Sit with me, let me cry on your shoulder, tell me I’m not super hideous in this hospital gown and hold my hand. Writing about cancer is a way, I hope, to encourage people not to skip the hard stuff.

We’re all in this life together.

We’re not all cancer patients, but we all struggle in some way. When my first New York Times op-ed piece went viral, I received thousands of emails and letters from people in pain. We are all compelled, in some way, to share our pain and be heard by the world. We need to know that our hurt does not go unacknowledged, and people really are looking out for us. I hope this book gives people some ways to express hard feelings (or give comfort to someone going through a hard time) without minimizing the struggle. A dollop of kindness and empathy goes a long way.