Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer

Rate this book
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008, Susan Gubar underwent radical debulking surgery, an attempt to excise the cancer by removing part or all of many organs in the lower abdomen. Her memoir mines the deepest levels of anguish and devotion as she struggles to come to terms with her body’s betrayal and the frightful protocols of contemporary medicine. She finds solace in the abiding love of her husband, children, and friends while she searches for understanding in works of literature, visual art, and the testimonies of others who suffer from various forms of cancer.

Ovarian cancer remains an incurable disease for most of those diagnosed, even those lucky enough to find caring and skilled physicians. Memoir of a Debulked Woman is both a polemic against the ineffectual and injurious medical responses to which thousands of women are subjected and a meditation on the gifts of companionship, art, and literature that sustain people in need.

298 pages, Hardcover

First published April 30, 2012

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Susan Gubar

28 books42 followers
Susan D. Gubar (born November 30, 1944) is an American author and distinguished Professor Emerita of English and Women's Studies at Indiana University. She is best known for co-authoring, with Sandra M. Gilbert, a standard feminist text, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979) and a trilogy on women's writing in the 20th century.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
116 (26%)
4 stars
168 (38%)
3 stars
98 (22%)
2 stars
40 (9%)
1 star
13 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 90 reviews
Profile Image for Jenny Brown.
Author 5 books46 followers
August 2, 2012
I appreciated Gubar's intention to be honest about her experiences, but regretted that she so often took flight in intellectualizing instead of telling her story. A good half of the book is her citing Dead Male Authors and the few officially recognized feminists beloved by post-modernist academics as if some famous person saying something somehow made it true. The intense experiences she herself attempts to recount often are covered in a sentence or two.

Reading this, what struck me, as someone who spends much of my day combing through research to determine what really works for another medical condition, and who has learned the hard way how incompetent most doctors are--is how Dr. Gubar's scholarly tendencies evaporated as soon as she encountered a medical crisis. If this happens to you, do NOT let anyone rush you into major surgery, or for that matter, invasive, potentially dangerous tests. Spending a week doing some study and determining where you can find the doctors who have the greatest expertise in handling your kind of problem can make a huge difference in your outcome.

The most horrifying sequelae of Gubar's treatment came from the surgery being done in a way that nicked her bowel left her with a terrible non-healing infection that led to the need for an iliostomy and drains which caused new infections. Contrary to what surgeons often tell you, such infections aren't routine and shouldn't happen. The patients of really good surgeons with lots of experience in a surgery have much better outcomes than those of others. Taking the time to see a specialist at a major center like Sloan Kettering or Dana Farber can be the difference between life and death or cure vs misery. Before allowing the "interventional radiologist" to implant the drains, Gubar would have been well advised to get a second or third opinion, too.

Trusting your doctor, especially when you know nothing about that doctor but that he or she practices out of the same community hospital or regional center as yours is a prescription for disaster. In some cases there's no choice thanks to insurance issues. But I have several friends who are alive today because they refused to let insurers browbeat them into local treatment for Stage 4 cancers but went for treatment to world-renowned medical centers. One is more than 5 years past diagnosis and in excellent health.

So if you are reading this because you are newly diagnosed, take the time to find out where the best hospitals are. (And avoid ANY cancer hospital that advertises on TV. These are scams that will cost you a fortune.) If you must have surgery, ask your doctor what his infection rate is, write it down on a piece of paper while he talks to you. If he brushes off your question, find a new doctor. If you have friends who are nurses in local hospitals ask them for feedback.

If like Dr. Gubar your mind freezes up when you are sitting in an office with a doctor and a terrifying diagnosis, bring along your most down-to-earth friend, ideally someone with some grasp of medical issues to ask the questions you can't remember to ask while faced with the doctor. That person may be more helpful if they are not your spouse who is likely to be as gobsmacked as you.

Beyond that, Gubar raises important questions about end of life decisions, but again, only in passing, and buried in so much intellectualizing that they don't get discussed in the kind of depth they deserve.

I'm happy to see someone challenge the whole smiley face bullshit that the Pink Ribbon people have imposed on society, aided by the fact that a large number of breast cancers are very slow growing and never posed any threat to women's lives (though they provide millions of breast cancer "survivors" cash cows for those who earn huge incomes as cancer fund executives.) Surviving cancer has nothing to do with your attitude but with the specific kind of cancer you have (only some are fast growing and likely to be fatal) and your access to health insurance and doctors.

But sadly, while this book paints a terrifying picture of what can happen to someone, no matter how intelligent, who doesn't take the time to carefully select a doctor and treatment after a cancer diagnosis, it does not give other people facing this kind of cancer much insight into how to prevent themselves from experiencing the kind of surgeon-caused debacle Gubar tragically had to undergo.

Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,064 reviews23 followers
May 10, 2012
A quick Amazon.com search using key words “Breast Cancer Memoirs” brings up 277 results. Change “Breast” to “Ovarian” and you get only 20. True, a woman’s chances of getting breast cancer sometime during her life are 1 in 8, while her lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is approximately 1 in 67. But as Susan Gubar makes abundantly clear in Memoir of a Debulked Woman, ovarian cancer goes places other cancers do not, often tangling up with the intestines. Bowel obstructions are not uncommon; neither are ostomies, and these are things that polite women do not speak of. The survival rate for those diagnosed with ovarian cancer has not changed in years, primarily because the majority of those diagnosed are in the late stages of the disease. Ovarian cancer’s approach is insidious, its signs and symptoms so easily confused with a myriad other conditions.

Gubar, a noted feminist English professor and author (with Sandra Gilbert) of The Madwoman in the Attic, provides us with a memoir of “enduring” late-stage ovarian cancer. Her experiences, not unlike those of many other ovarian cancer patients, are harrowing—from the debulking (radical excision of all tissue that looks to be cancerous) to the abscess that results from a bowel perforation, and the chemotherapy, which is supposed to check further growth of the cancer. Her telling makes for very sobering reading. This, as Gubar apologetically acknowledges, is not a feel-good sort of book. Rather, it represents her effort to name what many will not discuss, to blast away the euphemisms that surround the horror of this disease. Gubar wryly notes the reason there are no ovarian cancer activists [and, by extension, so few memoirs]: few women survive long enough to become activists. One could argue, however, that the writing of this book is a piece of activism in itself.

Though called a memoir, the text is actually something of a hybrid. It includes a medical/cultural history of the ovary, an examination of the many metaphors applied to cancer, as well as a substantive number of relevant excerpts and reflections from other illness narratives. The most compelling part of Memoir of a Debulked Woman is, of course, Gubar’s own story. She describes the debulking, the pain of a resistant abdominal abscess--the by-product of surgery, doctors' failed attempts to drain the abscess through tubes essentially bored through the muscles of the buttock, her huddling on the floor of the bathroom after chemotherapy...and it is grim. ( I should warn here that it may indeed not be the best reading for someone newly diagnosed, who may be coping with enough fear and anxiety as it is). But Gubar also conveys the love of family--her husband and daughters--and muses with a certain astonishment at opting for yet more invasive procedures when the cancer recurs--something she said she'd never do.

I greatly appreciated her efforts to place ovarian cancer within a historical and cultural context and her including the reflections of others. My complaints concern the too lengthy, rather academic discussions of the work of Frida Kahlo (especially without reproductions of Kahlo’s paintings appearing in the actual text) and the occasionally clunky academic writing. But these are niggling criticisms. Gubar’s, memoir is, more often than not, a no-holds-barred piece of writing. She dares to go where few have gone before. The cancer memoir, she notes dryly, is supposed to cheer others on, offer hope, tell them they too can beat it. This she does not do. She has much to offer all of us in her painfully truthful bearing witness to the many indignities an ovarian cancer patient is subject to. We need to demand better tools for detection; we need to know more and do better than we're currently doing.

How many of us know that women are suffering like this? How many of us are brave enough even to read this book and think about the issues around death and dying that it raises? That’s the question.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,838 followers
December 28, 2018
I just learned that Susan Gubar has a new memoir out, Late-Life Love, which is great news on so many levels.

About this memoir, I wrote in 2015:

What an extraordinary achievement. What an astonishingly clear-headed book. What a hard book to read and how glad I am to have read it. It's never 'brave' in the facile sense we use that word for, to describe other memoirs about impossible circumstances. And yet, Gubar is "brave" in the purest sense, for having written this book with her eyes so completely open to her experience.

I was grateful not only for this stark explanation of the physical changes Gubar and other ovarian cancer patients go through, but also to learn how much she was sustained by her love of words--how her vast reading, throughout her life and during the course of the disease described in this book, gave her a special solace, and allowed her to connect with what's good and real about being alive. While she writes lovingly of the support she receives from her extraordinary husband and family, it seemed to me that her inner strength, her ability to write this book at all, came from a lifetime of using language in a very precise way, both to understand and to describe her world.

I am one of those rare weird statistical outliers, a woman whose oncologist told her all about the debulking procedure and the many organs I was about to lose (who among us has heard of an "omentum" before being told she's about to lose it?) but in my case I woke up from the operation to learn I was cancer-free, a false positive, with a doctor who didn't seem to know how to handle this good news ("a first-year resident could have done your operation" was all he said, and gruffly). Even though my experience with that operation and Gubar's veered drastically apart at the moment we each opened our eyes, I am so grateful to her for writing down what it's like to be put to sleep, helpless and ignorant of whether you'll wake up ok, or wake up to find you are missing many internal organs and you're going to die soon anyway.

Gubar also completely captures the (apparently universally) appalling way that gynecological oncologists treat their patients. For this reason alone I would wish for every gynecological oncologist to read this book carefully, to think about the way they treat their patients, and to strive to improve at least the way they deliver their news, even if they can't seem to get better at treating the disease.
Profile Image for Ann Mcelligott.
49 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2012
I got this book on Thursday and finished it Sunday night. it is a riveting account of a woman dealing not only with a cancer diagnosis, but with the impact of the very treatment prescribed for its cure. My own surprise diagnosis was just four days short of one year ago. Like her I was stunned and yet strangely numbed by the shock of what had been found. I knew nothing about the specifics of ovarian cancer and have learned much in this year.
Gubar does not give us a feel-good account of her cancer, but is completely honest about its impact on her life. An ovarian cancer diagnosis often does not lead to a good outcome. From my own experience, the odds of a cure at the end of five years are only 20%. Her intense study of the biographies of people diagnosed with ovarian cancer or their caregivers is invaluable, both for her reflections on her own experience and for expanding the reader's understanding of the disease process.
Gubar underwent the grueling "debulking" surgery immediately after diagnosis and continued with chemotherapy which gave her one year of remission. Despite vowing to do only one course of chemo, when she does relapse, she agrees into a second course. She ends her book at this point.
I am not sure if I would have found the book as valuable if I had read it immediately after my diagnosis. It might have been too frightening. One year into the battle, I can identify with much, but not all, of her experience. Each of us follows a different path with this cancer and is subject to varying side effects. Still the over-arching narrative and her reflections on the medical system are thoughtful and valuable for any woman living with ovarian cancer. She provides a great bibliography for further reading.
Profile Image for Jaime.
229 reviews43 followers
May 4, 2012
If you're looking for a book that is full of cheerful platitudes and blind hope, this is not for you. In fact, in the introduction, Gubar writes, "...For those who have reason to believe or need to believe that their cancer is curable, please remember this book is not about you...." After seeing the relentless ravages of ovarian cancer up close and personal for over 2 years, this book accurately captures the devastating diagnosis and the limits of medicine. A cancer that has such a high morbidity rate - that hasn't changed much since the 1970s - receives so little attention. Gubar weaves in her own experiences with literature, other patients' experiences, medical studies and advocacy. She manages to talk about what it means to live with a terminal disease and how she sees dying, without being too morbid or preachy. Rather than submit to the "tyranny of positive thinking," as psycho-oncologist Jimmie Holland calls it, Gubar writes with candor and courage about an experience that has been undocumented for too long.
Profile Image for Sara Furr.
55 reviews3 followers
December 21, 2012
I just started this book yesterday and considered calling in sick today so I could finish it. My sister Debra died from ovarian cancer on October 6, 2010 after being diagnosed in early July of 2010. I remember hearing the word "debulked" then reading it in the pathology report. It was a horrifying procedure. Debra chose not to go through the other trauma of chemo and radiation after hearing the surgeon's brief description of what he'd done, explaining it somewhat like this: "Imagine that your abdomen was a house that was full of mud filling every room. I went in and scraped out all of the mud that I could but obviously there are little pieces of mud hidden in the cracks of the floor and perhaps clinging to the furniture. Now our job is to go in there with the chemo and clean up the remaining mud." The visual is seared into my mind. I was with Debra as she went home, then to a nursing home, and finally, thankfully to a peaceful hospice home in Glenwood, Iowa where she was given loving care. I am reading this book to further understand this terrible disease that took my sister at age 54. I'm not sure I could read it if I had ovarian cancer but as a sister of someone who died from it and also knowing I had my ovaries removed in the summer of 2009, I feel compelled to read it.
Profile Image for Shell.
560 reviews12 followers
September 21, 2012
As a cancer survivor (breast cancer) I find memoirs by other women who have been through cancer very interesting, and while I agree with the author that all the cheery, positive stories are a bit tiring and off-putting to those of us who do NOT consider our cancer experience to be a gift, this memoir was not very satisfactory. Her story is horrific and enlightening and should feel very personal but it doesn't. There is so much time spent quoting other writers and philosophizing that it ends up feeling rather detached. More women fighting ovarian cancer need to come forward and tell their story, perhaps then there would be more funding made available and more awareness of this terrible disease.
Profile Image for Pamela.
6 reviews
June 27, 2012
This book does not really read like a memoir, it's impersonal and replete with literary references, poetic allusions, intellectual projections, and I expected so much more in towards the "personal account" side of the spectrum. It seems like I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of "I" statements. "Memoir of a Debulked Woman" is more like a non-fiction book with the author and ovarian cancer as the subject(s). I am not interested so much in the intellectualization of Gubar's experience - and it appears she's striving for exactly that. No "positive thinking" war on cancer cheering section, nor a pity party story for her - as in her personal journey. I am in the middle of this book and what I find myself doing is skimming to the parts where she tells HER story, and having to go back and reread, deconstruct her impossibly complex and unreadable sentences, textbookish. What she doesn't realize is that it's possible to strike a middle ground - yes, Ms. Gubar, you can be emotional and intimate and at the same time show how smart and educated you are.

A few days later...I am a little farther in, and Gubar has found her stride. The more complications she gets into, the better she writes, and the more intimately she shares her experiences. I still don't like the digressions into literary references but I guess that's her job, so it's what she brings to her writing.

Factually speaking, It's one of the worst stories of a sub-optimal debulking and the complications and roadblocks are extreme, so I would not recommend this for anyone about to embark on a similar journey.
Profile Image for Martha Stettinius.
Author 1 book10 followers
December 29, 2012
A compelling memoir that I'd recommend for any woman, as ovarian cancer remains more deadly than breast cancer, and Gubar offers a rare look at the daily insults of living with ovarian cancer and the limited means we have of treating it. She explains "debulking," for example, which is surgical removal of cancerous cells in the abdomen, which often results in damage to other organs, such as the bowels, and is usually unsuccessful in fully removing the cancer. Her honesty is diminished somewhat by the often dense style of her writing. She is an academic, an esteemed professor Emeritus of English, and her writing often seems either dense or long-winded: "...we daily share trivial and momentous feelings, intuitions, thoughts, impulses, jokes, sights, gossip, music, news stories, historical tidbits, all tempered by passion and esteem that even now seem to fill the empty cavities at my core, leaving me not for one second grateful to or angry at cancer but full of wonder at the abundant magnanimity of human concord and consanguinity..." If you don't enjoy that style of writing, I think you'll find that her story is saved by her wry wit, detailed scenes, thoughtful reflection, artful allusions to other writings about cancer and mortality, and rebellious spirit.
Profile Image for Diana.
728 reviews4 followers
January 2, 2019
I am of two minds about this book. 5 stars for the portion of the book that is a memoir. Her description of her life with and treatment for ovarian cancer is intense, brutally honest and fascinating. I could not stop reading. But the ponderous heavy dense literary passages were awful. I do not like that kind of writing at all. A bit of history and quick, relevant literary references are fine but lengthy almost incomprehensible essays embedded in an otherwise meaningful and powerful book really detracted from my experience of the book. I would still recommend it if this type of book interests you.
Profile Image for Mary.
517 reviews5 followers
February 16, 2013
This a memoir of an English professor who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2008 (and based on the very low 5-year survival rate, has most likely succumbed to it by now). While I found her writings on the disease (including historical perspectives that as recent as about 100 years ago, women were mainly considered to be a pair of ovaries with a body attached) and struggles with treatment and her most-likely impending death both informative and honest, I did not like the fact that she had to invoke at least one famous writer, artist or philosopher (and quotes from multiple famous and non-famous cancer patients) on almost every page (some had multiple references on each page. Typical example on one page: "We need to battle cancer until death... According to Philippe Aries (19th century French historian), death is needed to preserve happiness... Death has superior forces, surgeon-writer Atul Gawande notes, ...the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end... Writing about her grief, Joan Didion realizes...". I'm not sure if her intention was to show that her struggles are universal (and thus linked to others across time and space) or if she was trying to blunt or mask her true feelings but the effect is to put emotional distance between her and the reader.
127 reviews2 followers
October 1, 2014
This book is just like a serious illness. It's more than a bit of a muddle, with lots of worthy quotes from all sorts of eminent and well-meaning people, but full of contradictions and less-interesting bits. So - exactly like any serious illness!
Ms Gubar's book is renowned for being explicit about the usually-private humiliations of illness. And this is important and worthwhile.
I think, though, that the most interesting part is how attached she is - we all are - to life. And how, despite her uber-rational thoughts, she agrees to be tortured by people - by doctors, that is, who are supposed to care for her. She finds herself agreeing to this torture if there's even the tiniest chink of hope. Sometimes there's not even any real hope - she's just on the treadmill along with everyone else.
I'm amazed that she continues, even now, even in post-book interviews, to accept this. It's right that she talks about earlier diagnosis, and research leading to new treatments - but what about an altogether different approach? What about research on how to treat ovarian cancer, breast cancer, all the other cancers - and all the other humiliations of old age and impending death - in ways that minimise that humiliation, reduce the uncontrollable faeces, and reclaim your brain and self rather than having it stolen from you?
Why arent we thinking about ways to make the enduring easier?
Profile Image for Angela.
68 reviews
May 18, 2015
I absolutely hated this book from the very first page. I am a two year survivor of ovarian cancer. I know all too well what she describes. While I respect her experience and the horrors that come with major surgery and subsequent chemotherapy, it quickly became tiresome to read over and over about the "gutting, draining, bagging, and poisoning."

The worst part of trying to read this overly pretentious memoir, full of quotes and literary links that only serve to distance the reader, is that every single page seems to scream out, "How DARE this happen to ME?" Ovarian cancer is horrible for every woman, but it is an equal opportunity killer.

If you are newly diagnosed, please do not read this book. It will not help you.

I could not finish the book. I rarely abandon a book, but life is seriously too short to waste it on a depressing, pompously written, angry memoir.
Profile Image for Maggie.
618 reviews
July 23, 2012
Gubar's book is grisly, and not particularly hopeful - because most cases of ovarian cancer are not diagnosed early enough, treatment is too often not very successful. She anticipates death, spins beauty and understanding out of bits of poetry and prose. It's heart-rending, and clear-eyed, and makes the point that our "social prohibitions against acknowledging dying or mourning" mean that we shy from hospice, rail against "death panels", and spend countless dollars keeping the very sick alive. But she's alive, nearly four years past diagnosis, and writes with a fluid underlying joy. It's a gift, this book.

My whole review is on my own blog: http://www.magpiemusing.com/2012/07/f...

Profile Image for Ms. G.
344 reviews2 followers
July 27, 2012
Is it me or just the books I am selecting to read this summer? Yes I read the entire book but still not sure what she was trying to say except she thinks "cheery" self-help books about cancer suck, chemo sucks, surgery sucks; and that the quality of life is so diminished by treatment, why go thru it--but she, like many others, continue to choose it... oh and more research and money has to be dedicated to early detection and treatment--well, that's a "no brainer" for lack of a better word. In the end I think she tries to "intellectualize" an experience, which makes it less powerful. She seems pretty angry... maybe she should just say that...
Profile Image for Julie.
868 reviews77 followers
August 19, 2012
Ovarian cancer is one of the quiet unglamorous, unfashionable cancers, that sneaks up on us girls, with vague signs and symptoms and often presents at a late stage. There aren't walks or badges for ovarian cancers, and it's not associated with any big name sponsors.

So Susans Gubars memoir is her story of diagnosis and life with ovarian cancer. We get to hear of her journey after a surprise diagnosis, and she also tells us about other woman who have who have undergone similar surgeries and treatments.
287 reviews4 followers
July 15, 2012
I had Susan Gubar as a professor, and she was an amazing teacher. Her eclectic intelligence is very much a part of this memoir, as is her ability to celebrate the gifts of art and literature, as well as human relationships. The account of her ordeal with ovarian cancer is grueling and no-holds-barred, and the polemic against the medical establishment seems very needed. This is a difficult book to read, but offers many insights into this specific problem and into the nature of human suffering and our mortality.
Profile Image for Tamra.
104 reviews46 followers
May 10, 2012
Memoir of a Debulked Woman is honest, unflinching, and without the 'just be positive' platitudes that litter so many books about cancer. This is the first memoir I've read that is an accurate description of the physical, mental and emotional toll of advanced-stage ovarian cancer. Susan Gubar articulates brilliantly so many of the difficult and thorny issues that face ovarian cancer patients, our families, and the medical community.
Profile Image for Susan.
32 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2014
What a complainer! I like a medical memoir, but was puzzled that she had sooooo much time to write about all her terrible reactions, thoughts, and troubles. It was part medical memoir, part overwrought English/ art dissertation, Ugh. I want my hours back!
Profile Image for Nicola.
247 reviews6 followers
March 21, 2019
Well, this was an engrossing memoir, but for all the wrong reasons. Midway through this read, I found myself questioning my reasons for liking memoirs so much, and examining why those reasons are so compelling for me. To me, a good memoir writer tells a good, honest personal story with a strong narrative arc and places their story within the scope of other places, events or issues that make it transcend the personal and invite the reader to be implicated in its context. A good memoir gives the reader a meaningful parting gift, be it a mood, a lesson, a revelation, or an understanding.

Gubar's memoir was a cringe-worthy journey through a horrific landscape of ovarian cancer treatment through which we accompany her as she seemingly zombie-walks through the experience, all the while exploring a wide range of literary and artistic references, some far too obscure to be accessible and applicable to the story. Admittedly, I don't know much about Frida Kahlo, so I felt a large part of what Gubar was trying to communicate was utterly lost on me. In fact, as a academic, I felt like she wrote the book for her students. It assumed a great deal of literary knowledge, but at the same time, it made no strong connections or conclusions, but simply meandered sadly, page after page. If this memoir was a song, it would a be requiem for Gubar's dignity and agency.

The strange part about such a personal book was that I felt utterly shielded from Gubar's genuine emotions and state of mind. I felt such compassion and sympathy for her, yet I felt like she kept me at arms length, and I could not connect to the deeper significance of her experience on her life.

My two stars does not mean the book was poorly written. In fact, it's rife with graphic, mesmerizing imagery. But I can't think of a single reason why I would ever recommend it to anyone to read. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone facing cancer. I also wouldn't recommend it to anyone who needs to read a story of triumph of the human spirit. This is not one of those stories.
Profile Image for Christine Matthews Baker.
64 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2022
“To adopt a line Don remembers from an old Billy Wilder movie, ‘the situation is hopeless but not serious.’”

While I found myself slogging through the first section of the book with it’s seemingly endless quotes and discussions of the writings of others dealing with often-terminal diagnoses, I’m so grateful I kept reading!

This is not a Pollyanna memoir of how faith and high spirits led to a cancer cure. Rather, this is a gripping recollection of an amazing woman’s experience from diagnosis to massive surgery, chemotherapy, and all the indignities women face when combatting ovarian cancer.

While she wanted to quit fighting at several junctures and promised herself she wouldn’t resort to endless and unproven procedures to extend a life well-lived, Susan Gubar’s story is ultimately one of resilience and determination. (And the slogging section really does highlight her experience and broadens that of the reader.)

Highly recommend!
18 reviews
October 14, 2019
I read this because I too suffer from an incurable cancer. Her descriptions of her particular cancer hell are amazing when she sticks to her personal experience. Cancer is as bad as one dreads. I did get one thing I wanted out of this book, which was the chance to nod in recognition, to feel accompanied by someone who's been through some similar things, and similarly had to think a lot about relatively early mortality. I agree with other reviewers that there's too much intellectualizing, too much quoting. Some people probably love it; it's not for me. I guess I have a more practical bent in life.
Profile Image for Meg Lelvis.
Author 5 books64 followers
January 20, 2019
A compelling, heartbreaking memoir of a woman's journey through ovarian cancer treatment. What she went through is a real eye-opener, with details that I hadn't read of before. Gubar is brutally honest about the pain and indignities associated with debulking surgery, and I wonder how she had the will to go on.
My one issue with the book was the philosophy described, along with literary metaphors that seemed neverending. I'm more "just the facts" type reader in a memoir. A little of the metaphysical, transcendental, etc., goes a long way.
Profile Image for Tara N..
10 reviews7 followers
July 4, 2012
Coming from the woman who jump-started feminist theory--the Wollstonecraft of the 20th century--Gubar's narrative omits none of the morbidity nor emotion associated with the countless surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, personal and medical interactions, etc. of the cancer victim. Reading the canon of cancer narratives, drawing from illness depicted in literature, and discerning stereotypes of the chaste lonely ovarian cancer patient reinforced by Edson's Wit and others, Gubar shows how she connects with others' experiences to help deal with her own. Unlike the Donne-teaching humiliated woman of Wit, Gubar confesses that she holds no qualms with the doctors who treated her:

"On the contrary, I have been given state-of-the-art treatment by deft physicians wishing to do their very best for a colleague on a different campus but at their own institution of higher education." (239)

As she mourns missing dissertation defenses, struggles to deny herself suicidal thoughts that have plagued her family (predominantly as Jewish "escapees" of the Holocaust), becomes upset over a bad New Yorker review of Judas, deals with her own mother's disrecognition of her condition and her own desire to continue emotionally supporting her two loving daughters and husband, she steers away from both a sympathetic and an academic tone: it is simply real, simply tragic.

This is a memoir I think all can benefit from--not just for ovarian cancer patients (to whom Gubar predominately writes), but for all feminists, all people who have or are having or probably will have in the future a loved one with cancer or other terminal illnesses.
Profile Image for Claire.
598 reviews6 followers
March 22, 2013
When I read that there was a memoir by the co-author of the groundbreaking, feminist Madwoman in the Attic, I had to read it. I am also interested in peoples' interactions with cancer diagnoses and meditations on mortality. And like Gubar, in the abstract I am resistant to some of the extreme measures that decrease the quality of life while extending it only briefly.

As might be expected of an English literature professor, the style is wonderful; whether Gubar is describing a good day or a bad day, the description is vivid. I appreciated her periodic sentences and metaphors. As a professor too, her level of research is not surprising. She set out to read cancer narratives and fiction about women struggling with cancer (primarily ovarian as was hers and breast cancer) and websites about ovarian cancer. When she narrates a reaction to an event, she quotes others with similar and/or different reactions. When she is in despair she draws on great literature moments of despair; though these were often spiritual, she relates them to her physically induced state.

Gubar writes in order to draw attention to the lack of research funding for women's diseases, primarily ovarian cancer, as evidenced by the lack of change in outcome for women with ovarian cancer and the horrendous nature of options. The options are set in the history of attitudes toward ovaries (at one time related to too much sex and at another to too little), attitudes that, of course, parallel attitudes toward women.

It might not be a good book to read for one in the midst of pondering whether or not to endure the radical "treatments," but it would be a good book to have read.

Profile Image for Peggy.
Author 1 book20 followers
December 21, 2014
Feminist literary critic Gubar shares her diagnosis and treatment for ovarian cancer. As she puts it, she is gutted, drained, bagged, and poisoned, and suffers considerable humiliation and pain. Nevertheless, and to her surprise, she continues treatments, knowing that for ovarian cancer, the treatments are more likely to be "suboptimal" than not. Gubar draws from the poetry and memoirs of those stricken with cancer or intimately familiar with it, including as Elizabeth Edwards, Terry Tempest Williams, and Betty Rollins. Gubar is also inspired by Frida Kahlo's depictions of her own pain and as her ordeal continues, she gains much insight into Kahlo's self-portraits.

Pain and death are the two themes here. They may seem gruesome topics to those on the other side of cancer, but Gubar is good company, and provides thoughtful commentary about the state of medicine, which provides very little research funding for this women's disease. She is also simply a masterful writer. I liked her clear-eyed meditations upon death, facing death, recognizing death, living with death, and living in a state resembling or nearing death, the state of illness and treatment. She compares her own experiences to the self-help oriented, positive-thinking responses of some authors to their terminal diagnoses that seek redemption in illness. She does not find redemption; instead, she is given a new life, one much diminished, but worth clinging to, it seems, as a way to honor her husband, children and later generations. It's a privilege to read her memoir.
Profile Image for Ann.
520 reviews12 followers
June 19, 2012
Gubar wrote a powerful and necessary book about ovarian cancer. More than that, it is a realistic and helpful book in that it explains how ovarian cancer is incurable, mostly (discovered, in general in stage 3 or 4), how the surgery and chemo are brutal and palliative (extending life expectancies from 3-4 months for a few years, if the chemo is repeated, you can get several years in some cases). With great honesty, she describes the humiliating and debilitating effects of the treatments for ovarian cancer, how little is written about ovarian cancer, how a test for ovarian cancer should be easier/simpler, and why she decides to do the treatment and muddle through even though she's suffering (grandchildren, a good life, etc.) I am grateful that she wrote this book, and I hope in the near future that treatments for ovarian cancer will improve making this a historical record and not the reality that many women face.
Profile Image for Danika Rockett.
2 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2012
This book was difficult to read at times, but fantastic nonetheless. When I say "difficult," I don't mean because of style or syntax; rather, the content is very emotional and Gubar's description of cancer treatments (and the effects of those treatments) is graphic. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a scholar of either literature or feminism, anyone who has read The Madwoman in the Attic, or anyone who is simply interested in a personal account of survival. Gubar's existential journey made for a fascinating, if sometimes horrifying, memoir.
Profile Image for Tony Gualtieri.
414 reviews24 followers
September 27, 2012
Brilliant and literate account of dying from ovarian cancer and the exacerbations caused by aggressive treatment. The author is brutally honest about her condition and what it is doing to her mind and body. The approach of death is everywhere, and I left the book dwelling on the inevitability of my own death, the harshness and degradations of its occurrence, and the wish that I can face it in as clear-sighted a manner as the author.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,007 reviews220 followers
August 13, 2016
A memoir I was anxious to read the moment I saw it mentioned in the NYT. But I found Gubar's story so harrowing that I was left queasy with nausea or terror repeatedly throughout my attempts at reading it (even in the non-clinical chapters on the history of ovarian cancer). I hope many people -- healthy women, patients, doctors, men -- read this, though.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 90 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.