From O. R. to P. R.
How Cancer Taught Me to Pursue My Dreams
by Fran Di Giacomo
I needed to write a book, and I had every opportunity an author would need to fail. As a professional artist and career cancer patient (breast and ovarian), I’d been on chemotherapy for five years and had spent most of my time in the hospital. I didn’t have a computer, fax machine, cell phone, or college degree. I just knew how to juggle multiple tumors, surgeries, chemotherapy sessions, art galleries, portrait commissions, and armies of medical staff, and how to enjoy life.
People noticed, and they asked for my advice. Doctors asked me to talk to people with cancer, survivor groups invited me to attend their meetings, and my phone was constantly ringing with terrified patients on the other end of the line. I wanted to help everyone, but it was hard to get my message across in a phone conversation.
Sitting at my easel, painting a commission for an art gallery that knew nothing of my medical challenges (I was a member of “cancer anonymous”), my brain visualized the chapters of a chemo survival book. This would not be another “pink and blue” cancer book. In order to truly help people, it would be shameless, outrageously witty, power-packed with trench warfare wisdom, and just wicked enough to hold their attention without losing my dignity.
Statistics showed my 30 percent chance of cancer survival was better odds than publishing this book!
While recovering from another dastardly surgery and too weak to paint, I sat in my recliner with yellow pad, pencil, and eraser. In old-fashioned cut and paste tradition, I wrote chapters, and a friend typed them while I researched queries, agents, and publishers. The result of that information was more terrifying than the chemotherapy permeating my body. And statistics showed my 30 percent chance of cancer survival was better odds than publishing this book! I thought to myself, When you live every day in crisis mode, what’s one more statistic?
My manuscript needed professional help. I mailed it to a recommended editor and checked into the hospital for more slice and dice. Days later in my hospital room, I lay clutching a morphine button and nursing nine tubes snaking in and out of my body while my husband read the editor’s response. His overview was humorous and clever, and he seemed perfect for the job. The editor suggested I would offend millions, but as an artist accustomed to nailing my guts on the wall for the world to critique, I was undaunted. I knew my audience.
His finished manuscript was a frustrating disappointment. I wanted this book to bounce and bubble like beer; his droll, long-winded version slid down like wine and put me to sleep. I kept searching for doctors – and editors. Responses from agents resembled my medical chart, with phrases like “questionable substance,” “no known cure,” and “do not resuscitate.” “Confidence crisis” was becoming a new medical term. Incredibly, I found a publisher in my city who had the professionalism, efficiency, and expertise I needed. Time was of the essence because a cancer magazine was planning a story on humor and would reference my book – if it was actually published.
Book-signing invitations were mailed, a caterer was hired, and I was in the publisher’s office talking on the phone with the manager of the printing and binding company. It seems a machine had broken and on-time delivery was impossible.
In my case, chemo was the perfect preparation for writing a book; they both involve dizzying heights, depressing lows, and nerves of steel. Recalling a recent episode of The Sopranos, I suppressed a giggle and stated calmly, “My name is Di Giacomo. I know where you live, I have cancer, and I have nothing to lose. Will I have books in time for my party?”
“Yes. You will have books,” came the reply.
It’s been 10 years and 16 visits to the operating table, but my book and I are alive and well. A multitude of readers, interviews, articles, and speaking engagements have rewarded my persistence.
Sometimes we feel that our mountains are too high to climb, and we give up on our dreams. But I want to tell you, Dare to dream – don’t give up your fairy tale.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Fran Di Giacomo, “PHD” (Perpetually Hairless Dame), is the author of I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears. Visit Fran at TheChemoLady.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.