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An Astonishing New Cancer Memoir Brings Radical Politics to the Genre

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In 2014, Anne Boyer received a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. The strain is known for its poor prognosis and lack of targeted treatment options, but genetic testing brought her some relief. The poet and essayist is a single mother; with results in hand, she says, she told her daughter she “doesn’t have to worry that she is predisposed or genetically cursed.” Her 14-year-old wasn’t exactly comforted. “‘You forget,’ she answered, ‘that I still have the curse of living in the world that made you sick.’” The Undying chronicles the world’s sickness alongside Boyer’s sickness in the world.

As she explores the ways cancer is narrativized, Boyer turns to Ellen Leopold, whose history of breast cancer details a 1990s-era, neoliberalism-inflected shift, wherein “the external world is taken as a given, a backdrop against which the personal drama is played out.” While many contemporary cancer memoirs stay within the confines of individual triumph or tragedy, Boyer insists on a collective and political reading of the disease, unpacking cancer’s “ideological regime” while experiencing it directly.

She’s a wry, brilliant guide, and familiar territory feels completely different in Boyer’s hand. In one scene, a surgeon won’t give her biopsy results if she goes to the appointment alone, so a friend takes a lunch break from her low-paying job to be there. Boyer uses the doctor visit as an opportunity to detail the United States’ guaranteed-leave policies, then offer brief and illuminating commentary on their impact. (“If you are loved outside the enclosure of family, the law doesn’t care how deeply…. if you need to be cared for by others, it must be in stolen slivers of time.”)

She weaves in and out of time, from ancient Rome to the Kansas City–area hospital halls presided over by her cherubic and clog-wearing oncologist. She’s not at a cancer pavilion; she’s sending a “communiqué from an exurban satellite clinic of a cancer pavilion named after a financier” where the cost of a single chemotherapy infusion is more than she has made in any year of her life. The Undying also has one of the longest subheads in recent memory—Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care—but even that understates her exploration.

I spoke with Boyer by phone the day after she found a snakeskin near her house that looked as if it was cast off by the snake on her book’s cover. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Alex Ronan

Alex Ronan: The Undying feels radically different from other cancer memoirs. Why is that?

Anne Boyer: One of the things that happen when you get sick, especially if you particularly like to read, is that you get all these books in the mail. What I noticed was this incredible ideological onslaught treating everything as an individual experience as opposed to a collective, political one. All those struggles get put in these utterly rigid narrative containers in which we’re supposed to follow a sentimental heroine through the harrowing journey. It reproduces a sort of grim pleasure of watching women suffer. Cancer narratives are so, so burdened by this weight.

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