Book Review: A Breast Cancer Alphabet

After NPR producer Madhulika Sikka was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2010, she found herself drowning in literature about her illness. But she longed for a very particular kind of book: "Nothing too long or scientific or self-indulgent … A short book that wouldn't tax my chemo-addled brain." She decided to write the book she wished she'd had, so that other women might benefit.

As its name suggests, A Breast Cancer Alphabet is a beginner's book—not too long and not too scientific. Its 26 short chapters have titles ranging from " 'A' Is for Anxiety" and " 'B' Is for Breasts" to " 'Y' Is for You" and " 'Z' Is for ZZZZZZZ's." Many newly diagnosed women will find its simplicity reassuring, its comprehensiveness informative and its just-us-girls tone comforting. Some women may wish for a more in-depth approach.

Perhaps to conform to her A-to-Z format, Sikka addresses some unexpected topics, and she does so with refreshing candor. In Chapter 5, " 'E' Is for Epiphanies," she rejects the popular notion that cancer unleashes a sense of purpose. In her case, that didn't happen, she says. "What you want most is your pre-cancer life, that it was pretty okay, all things considered, and you would do anything to go back to it ... Maybe that is the epiphany." Similarly, she concludes Chapter 23, " 'W' Is for Warriors," with the plaint "I am not a woman warrior. I am just a woman, a woman who has been diagnosed with a horrible disease … Can I not be a woman warrior? Please?"

A Breast Cancer Alphabet is not encyclopedic in its discourse, but it is a good, solid, user-friendly book for women who want a companionable volume to read in the waiting room. And the thing readers will find most heartening? That its author lived to tell the tale.

Check out Madhulika's Tumblr, a place where people (breast cancer survivors, friends, family, etc.) can write their own breast cancer alphabet via sentences, photos, artwork, etc.