An Essential Reading List for Cancer Patients: My Personal Picks So Far

I’ve been fighting ovarian cancer for more than three years now and my oncologist is still cautiously optimistic regarding my prognosis. I remain in remission from what is statistically the deadliest of women’s cancers. As I’ve indicated previously in this blog many of my priorities have changed since my diagnosis—this transformation is evident in my leisure activities, my hobbies, and even the reading material that I choose. In this post I’ve chosen to review several of the books that have influenced me during my cancer journey and that I would recommend to other cancer patients or their caregivers.

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Full Cat CoverOriginally published in 1990, this book has been through numerous editions, the author explores the role of mindfulness and how its practice can improve the quality of life for people with chronic illnesses. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes in detail the techniques he has used successfully with patients in the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. Learning to listen to your own body is vital, and I came away from this book with an improved awareness of how my body responds to the emotional and psychological stress of having cancer. I’ve also acquired new methods to effectively reduce or manage the negative impact of such everyday stress.

Full Catastrophe Living is over 400 pages and covers a lot of territory, including the basics of both meditation and yoga. I can accept that some readers might be turned off by the length of this volume or by its allusions to certain tenants of Buddhism. Mindfulness mediation is frequently taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, however it has been argued that its essence is universal. For this reason, it can be learned and practiced by cancer patients without appealing to Asian culture or Buddhist authority to enrich it or authenticate it. Advocates contend that mindfulness stands on its own as a powerful vehicle for self-understanding and healing.

The Living With Cancer Cookbook by Kris Ghosh & Linda Carson


I had just started my rounds of chemotherapy when I discovered The Living With Cancer Cookbook by Kris Ghosh and Linda Carson. I’ll never regret my decision to purchase this fantastic volume of recipes specifically aimed at individuals going trough cancer treatment. There’s an abundance of comfort food here and a sense that the authors truly have compassion for those of us who struggle to eat, for example breakfast recipes include cheesy ham and asparagus bake and home-style oatmeal with raisons. I adore pasta, and many of the pasta-based dishes presented in this book are excellent. I can remember that I was able to enjoy the fettuccini with asparagus and mushrooms even while undergoing chemotherapy.

Most of all I love the way this cookbook is organized to deal with the specific symptoms of cancer treatment. The four most common side effects are nausea, mouth sores, diarrhea and constipation. As the authors point out, eating the right foods can help alleviate each of these issues and make them more bearable. This is an almost flawless volume, but I did notice a number of limitations surrounding the supplementary articles that are included with the actual recipes. Specifically, the publishers of The Living With Cancer Cookbook have established a partnership with certain prominent American breast cancer organizations. I could find this alliance slightly annoying at times since much of the bonus information in the book isn’t directly relevant to me as a Canadian or as an ovarian cancer survivor.

The Secret Language of Doctors by Dr. Brian Goldman

Dr. Brian Goldman

Dr. Brian Goldman

I was impressed by both the medical expertise and the Canadian content contained in this bestseller by Dr. Brian Goldman. Goldman is a highly regarded emergency room physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He is also a well-known medical journalist and the host of the CBC radio program White Coat, Black Art. As an author, Goldman is not one to shy away from controversial or difficult to discuss topics within the field of medicine. “I try to get inside my colleagues’ heads and hearts, and explain to the world why they act the way they do and what it means,” he told the Toronto Star.

I learned a great deal about the medical community through reading The Secret Language of Doctors, and I can certainly understand why this insightful and revealing book quickly became a Globe and Mail bestseller. Like most cancer patients, I found it traumatic and confusing to be suddenly thrust into a mysterious world of hospitals, oncologists and the health care system in general. Goldman’s book has helped to demystify the environment I now find myself in. I believe I’m able to be more empathetic toward doctors and nurses, even though some of the slang that is cited in The Secret Language of Doctor’s is shocking or offensive on some level.

I can accept that in the field of medicine slang and other jargon is frequently used as a buffer, a way to protect doctors and patients alike from harsh realities. In the end, Goldman feels the most important issues are dignity and respect. “You should not do or say anything that would disparage your colleagues or patients,” he says. “But telling people not to use slang just makes it go underground. Listen to the slang and hear what it’s trying to say. The people who use that slang are often frustrated by the system when they just want to give good care.”

Mindfulness and Cancer

Managing psychological stress when you have cancer can be extremely difficult. How can you experience moments of stillness, relaxation and contentment when your mind is constantly preoccupied with your disease and what impact it might have on your future?

Even when the apprehensiveness over a cancer diagnosis is taken out of the equation, getting our mind to embrace a sense of calmness is often difficult. If you start paying attention to where your mind is from moment to moment throughout the day, chances are you will find that considerable amounts of your time and energy are expended in clinging to life’s memories or regretting unfortunate things that have already happened and that are over. And you will probably find that as much or more energy is expended in anticipating, planning, worrying and fantasizing about the future and what you want to happen or don’t want to happen.

Cancer only exacerbates this inclination; in particular there is the fear and uncertainty. Having cancer means facing the unknown trajectory of the disease, the side effects from chemotherapy or other treatments and the possibility of death. Even thought the doctors have reassured me that I’m in remission, I’m often consumed with anxiety. Like thousands of other women in my situation my mind seeks answers to the inevitable questions. How long will I remain in remission? If I have a recurrence, how can I possibly find the physical and emotional strength to contend with going through everything all over again?


I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to quiet my mind and focus my attention is a technique called mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered using this method with cancer patients and other groups battling chronic pain or illness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness is basically just a way of paying attention, a way of awakening our minds and being present in the here and now. With principles found in Buddhism, mindfulness teaches us to live moments in each day rather than focusing on what might lie ahead.

Although mindfulness mediation is frequently taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, it has been argued that its essence is universal. Mindfulness is universal and transcends nationality or culture because it’s essentially a technique for looking deeply into oneself in the spirit of self-inquiry and self-understanding. For this reason it can be learned and practiced by cancer patients without appealing to Asian culture or Buddhist authority to enrich it or authenticate it. Advocates contend that mindfulness stands on its own as a powerful vehicle for self-understanding and healing.


Jon Kabat-Zinn

So how do you learn to live in each moment and remain focused on what is occurring in the present? How do you become skilled at practicing mindfulness? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn and other teachers mindfulness can take a lifetime to fully master. However, getting started isn’t difficult if a person is motivated to practice and doesn’t expect some magic resolution to life’s problems or to all of their cancer related issues. Its been said that the most insidious enemy of any type of daily practice is our North American culture’s relentless celebration of immediate gratification. Below I’ve listed some of the essential principles of living mindfully:

  • When a cancer patient approaches mindfulness formally in a group or classroom setting one of the first things that they will learn is how to use focused breathing techniques. This helps them to discover their body and how it responds to stress and other emotions. By concentrating on their breath, they can also gently pull their mind back to the present moment when it wanders.
  • Mindfulness is cultivated by simply observing our experiences and not judging them. The natural human tendency is to categorize or label almost everything we see. These judgments often come to dominate our minds, making it difficult to ever find inner peace.
  • Some cancer survivors choose to practice mindfulness meditation or gentle yoga. A study just published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that women with breast cancer who practiced yoga had lower levels of stress hormones. They also reported less fatigue and a better quality of life. It’s generally recommended that you ask your doctor if you can participate in yoga, then find a yoga instructor with experience leading a class that includes cancer patients.
  • In our overwhelmingly goal oriented and results driven culture mindfulness is one of the few practices that is essentially a non-doing. It has no other goal than for you to be yourself. For example, when you meditate you’re encouraged not to set specific goals such as I’m going to relax now, I’m going to become more enlightened or I’m going to control my pain. You have nothing to strive for, except perhaps a better recognition and appreciation of the present moment.
  • Acceptance and letting go are crucial components of mindfulness. A philosophy of mindfulness encourages us to come to terms with our life, even difficult experiences such as a cancer diagnosis. Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. Mindfulness doesn’t require that you have to like your situation—you don’t have to assume a passive attitude toward suffering or life’s unfairness. However, you must come to terms with things as they are and accept them, whether it’s a diagnosis of cancer or learning of someone’s death.

In spite of everything, cancer can be a wake-up call to the value of life, an incentive to live the life we want or believe we were meant to live in the time we have left. Mindfulness, with its emphasis on the present and living each moment fully, can help guide some cancer survivors through this profound journey.