Book review: Death and the Elephant
Nurse consultant Natalie Doyle reviews a life-affirming memoir
Death and the Elephant: How Cancer Saved My Life
£20.00 | 304pp
The author of this book adopts an unusual perspective on the experience of cancer – he credits the disease with saving his life. Ensnared in a gambling addiction and languishing in a souless job, Mr Shaw recalls feeling dispirited and wasted, until a cancer diagnosis becomes the catalyst that leads to the reappraisal of life and the advent of a glittering career in theatre .
Much of the rest of the book follows a familiar pattern, with the author reflecting on disease presentation and the shock of diagnosis. Much wordage is spent on relating the graphic details of anti-cancer treatment, with chapters on chemotherapy and its side effects, such as alopecia and oral mucositis, and the author’s gratitude to the healthcare professionals is apparent throughout. A discussion of the impact of treatment on sexuality and relationships offers a personal and intimate view of the disease, but ultimately it is the intersection of cancer and gambling that pervades the book.
It is increasingly understood that cancer can suffuse all aspects of life and not always in negative ways. Many people report that cancer has made them reflect on what is important to them and helped them uncover resources they never knew they had. This memoir highlights this in a jaunty, breezy way that belies the complexity of living with a life-threatening condition. This book will strike a chord with some working in oncology, as the experience of the person with cancer is always enlightening and informative.
Reviewed by Natalie Doyle, nurse consultant, Living With And Beyond Cancer, The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust