In Danger: A Memoir of Family and Hope (UQP 2018) is confronting right from the cover – an arresting image of the author, Josie Dietrich, proudly exhibiting her post-cancer body, as a warrior might display her battle scars. Arrows point to her portacath site, and to her belly after a hysterectomy and oophorectomy. A strategically-placed title covers the site of her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. This is a woman who has faced a physical and emotional ordeal; a survivor who decided to tackle cancer head-on and to fight it with every weapon available to her.
And now, nine years on and cancer-free, Dietrich is a woman determined to tell her story to encourage others who are coping with similar trauma.
But this is not only a story about breast cancer survival, it is also a tale of parental love and sacrifice, of intergenerational memory, and of love.
Dietrich’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when the author was only 21, perhaps too young to fully comprehend or analyse the treatment options her mother decided upon. After her mother’s death, when faced with her own diagnosis, Dietrich revisited her mother’s cancer journey as she formulated her own plan of attack. Her illness was complicated by the fact that when she was diagnosed, her high-needs son was only nine months old (and she was still recovering from a traumatic birth). Later assessed as autistic, her son played a pivotal role in her recovery – his very existence complicating her recuperation while also being a fundamental reason for her to heal herself. He needed her, and she needed him.
The book chronicles Dietrich’s road to wellness, with her partner and young son beside her every step of the way. Her mother had sought alternatives to conventional medicine, but Dietrich quickly realised that wasn’t going to be her choice. She researched every aspect of the disease and explored how best to treat it. She says her mother’s death saved her – because it forced her to consider other options. Through the language of chemotherapy and lumpectomy, reconstruction and early menopause, hormonal fluctuations and areola tattooing, Dietrich gives us a frank and open dissection of what it means to hear those words ‘you have cancer’, and all that follows. What happens when I fear my own body is turning against me? How much invasive treatment can I cope with? What if the treatment is worse than the disease? How do I carry on living while I’m frightened of dying? Are some decisions more selfish – or selfless – in regards to my own body, and how do I reconcile these with my loved ones? What does the removal of my female organs mean to my sense of myself as a woman? How do I rate my grief over infertility or changed sexuality? How do I cope when my body, my sense of self, my relationships with those I love, when all of these things are in danger?
Combining meticulous technical information and interrogative emotional insight, In Danger is a must-read for those wanting a greater understanding of what cancer means, what it doesn’t mean, and how to go about living with it whilst still maintaining hope and optimism. And while I was going to particularly recommend this book for women, I think actually I would also specifically recommend it to men who have a partner, wife, sister, mother or daughter with breast cancer, as a handbook on how to provide essential support.