Every story about the terrifying ordeal of unexpectedly facing a severe cancer diagnosis is dramatic and terrifying, particularly for empathetic and afflicted readers. On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions by Kate Figes is not only an exceptionally beautifully written book, because here is a gifted author, but also because her story is an account of how every person could be in her situation.
The first hook for me was that of the puppy the family fell in love with - Zeus - the only surviving male of a litter of miniature wire-haired dachshunds. Only months previously, one of my partner’s daughters and son-in-law’s beautiful and very large 10 years old Rottweiler - Zeus - had to be put down due to cancer affecting his vital organs. The devastation and grief are still raw for everyone.
Kate Figes, an exceptionally fit, strong and healthy woman, had been playing regular, competitive tennis when muscle aches and pains in her ribs morphed into sharp pains. Scans and X-rays revealed fractured ribs and multiple holes in the bones – indicating bone cancer. The bone marrow biopsy revealed a breast cancer primary - with the dreadful diagnosis of the most aggressive triple negative breast cancer - treatable, not curable. Kate recounts in vivid blackness technicolour of undergoing chemotherapy - drips, chemo tablets, horrendous side effects – pains, spasm, blood pressure spiralling up and other drugs to bring it down.
“After years of taking nothing stronger than coffee, the first cycle of drugs felt like being hit by a train. Denosumab made my whole frame ache more than it had done before the treatment. Chemotherapy is like nothing anybody has ever taken before. It sends my body into spasms of nausea, the runs and shivering fear; it seems to dismantle every cell of my being to get at the cancer…Suddenly I am an invalid, dependent on drugs to try to keep me alive. Suddenly all that history of trying to do the right thing by my body evaporates into a blaze of chemicals. I curl up on the sofa and want to die. And with free prescriptions as a cancer patient, I have enough morphine in the house to be able to do just that.”
Kate Figes is an accomplished author - she weaves together her own family history - her parents’ divorce, her grandmother’s saving of her family’s lives in a dramatic last minute 1939 escape from the Nazis, her own career as a family mediator, heart-stopping sentimental stories about a treasured family beach hut and her mother’s beloved Bechstein baby grand piano - the only item named for Kate in her mother’s will. She writes powerfully about grief, loss and endurance. “The Holocaust is, and continues to be, such a powerful force that a vast black hole seems to such all of us back to that time whether we were there or not. Persecution of such magnitude tumbles through the DNA of family life.”
But it is when the names of familiar people to Positive Health PH Online began to feature in this book: health journalist Jerome Burne, Patricia Peat former chemo nurse, founder of Cancer Options consultancy author of Treatment Options for Cancer Patients, hyperbaric oxygen and infra-red heat therapy, Boswellia serrata (plant that produces Indian frankincense), turmeric, cannabis oil, CBD capsules, geriatric yoga, juicing, that Kate enunciates her utterly sensible and pragmatic view of combining the best of alternative and conventional cancer treatments that this book really comes into its own.
“It’s the polarity of views, the clash of doctrines between the medical world and alternative treatments, that I find unsettling, for there is no one truth, no certainty. At one end of the spectrum there are the dieticians and ‘alternative’ cancer experts who say that chemotherapy is promoted heavily by Big Pharma, and so profitable there are powerful vested interests to make sure it is prescribed. They say that it can kill people quicker than cancer and that the body has the power to heal itself if you feed it the right foods and supplements, take all of the stress and emotional lows out of your life and detox daily. At the other end of the spectrum is the highly respected medical world, their treatments based on the empirical evidence of peer-reviewed studies and drug trials.”
Kate Figes describes in breath-taking clarity what being a ‘Cancer Warrior’ means, portraying the consciousness gleaned from self-analytical, emotional and tons of inner work, combined with daily life with her family - children, husband and significant deceased relatives. She has arrived at a new understanding “uncertainty is the name of this game. That cancer is always just one sliver of time away from me…I have to accept that this is what life is going to be like for me now – moving from scan to scan, rollercoasting from the lows of what if…? to the highs of it isn’t…. There will be progress, but there could also be setbacks.”
There are many insightful and powerful tales in Kate Figes’ book, including her and her brother’s decision to claim German citizenship despite the dreadful Nazi holocaust events which cast a spell over their family and the experience of not being able to have her fingerprints taken by the immigration authorities due to chemotherapy wiping them out.
This is a page-turner of a book - beautifully crafted and skilfully written with so much to say; I wholeheartedly recommend it to PH Online readers.
Available from Little Brown and Amazon