Book Review: A Cancer In The Family

A Cancer In The Family:  Take Control Of Your Genetic Inheritance, by Theodora Ross

This author really wants you to like her.  This book has a dual aim, and the author’s agenda depends a lot on her likability.  On the one hand, the more likable one, the author writes as a cancer survivor from a family with some secrets and truthiness regarding their background as well as their family medical history.  On the other hand, though, the author has the agenda of using her family story as a way of encouraging certain risky and serious medical procedures to proactively reduce the chance of cancer, and she clearly is a booster for the expensive medical industry that has surrounded cancer as well as genetic screening.  These two agendas sit uneasily together, as the timeless value of worthwhile stories mixed like oil and water with the gimmicky procedures that the author recommends that may well already be obsolete and no longer recommended.  As someone whose dealings with cancer have thus far been slight [1], this was not a book I was able to fully relate to.  My own medical experience and that of my closest family are with painful chronic conditions that the medical profession has a slight to negligible skill in being able to deal with, which has not generally encouraged me to have a great deal of faith in either the competence of the professionals or the efficacy of a great deal of their approach.

In terms of its contents, this book, including its appendices, comes up to a bit more than 250 pages.  The author begins with a discussion of knowledge that can save the lives of some people, along with a lengthy discussion of the relationship between biology and destiny and the genetic nature of all cancers.  After that the author discusses how to deal with both silence and drama when building a family history.  The author then turns to a discussion of the problem of truthiness in ourselves and in our medical professionals.  What follows is a discussion about genetic testing and genetic counseling as well as how to manage cancer risk when information is limited.  The main contents of the book are then completed with a discussion of targeted treatments for cancer as well as the relationship between people and data points, where the author shows herself a bit too enthusiastic about patient participation in medical big data projects.  The book then closes with some acknowledgements and a detailed discussion of inherited cancer syndromes and their treatments in two appendices.

Ultimately, I was unable to fully appreciate this book for two reasons.  For one, my own family history with cancer is not so dire as to make it a matter of the utmost importance to engage in genetic testing in order to fight against the sorts of cancers discussed in this book.  Nor are my own environmental conditions so dire as to increase the risk of cancer dramatically as I neither drink nor smoke.  When this lack of perceived urgency and importance is combined with a distinct lack of trust of the author because she appears to be trying to manipulate the reader by using her experience as a way of building trust and intimacy in order to support dubious and expensive medical procedures, the result is a book that cannot help but encourage a great deal of suspicion on my part.  Many readers may feel differently about this book–certainly the author works hard to gain the reader trust and also has a large amount of intriguing stories about cancer and the effect of genetic predisposition and the importance of history, including one story I will not spoil that involves the famous feuding McCoys and a disease that may have predisposed them to aggression.  Unfortunately, though, at the end of the day this book is simply too preoccupied with its agenda to win my trust.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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