Book review: “Healing”

Flip a coin and watch.

No matter how it lands, it’s still the same coin but only half of it’s revealed. Front and back, in and out, there are always two sides to everything, though you may never see them both unless you look. You never experience both unless, as in “Healing” by Theresa Brown, RN, you have no other choice.

She still doesn’t remember what she said to her family, to her children or to her husband. She’d told them that she’d been called back for scanning and another mammogram, but revealing the actual diagnosis, no. Theresa Brown can’t recall it.

One might think she’d be prepared for it. When she was 16, Brown had lumps removed from one breast and it wasn’t all that painful, as she remembered. She had several relatives who’d died from breast cancer years ago; her mother had cancer, too, but it was a different kind. This medical background had spurred Brown to become an oncology nurse, but no – even that’s not enough preparation if you’re a cancer nurse, now cancer patient.

She wanted to take care of cancer patients right from the start, but learning the ropes wasn’t easy; the first ward she worked on was full of bullies and unhelpful colleagues. Later wards became easier places to learn, but she still labored under the problem of care-versus-cost, of patient-versus-profit. This unique point-of-view made her realize that medicine, as a whole, could do better.

That was especially obvious after her diagnosis.

It’s “cruel,” says Brown-the-patient, to make patients wait over a long weekend for their test results, or to make them wait weeks to determine a plan for care. It’s likewise important to maintain dignity during tests; to pay attention to pain; and to soothe fears, even if it’s with a few words and the most basic explanations. 

It’s important to help a patient remember that they’re not just their cancer.

“I am grateful that treatment saved my life,” says Brown. “Sometimes I’m also frustrated at what it took away.”

If you’ve ever been in a hospital – and especially if you’ve ever had cancer – author Theresa Brown sings a song here that you’ve heard before. The difference is that “Healing” is actually, calmingly, quite lyrical.

Indeed, Brown’s words are very soothing; even when they’re filled with outrage for what she experienced as a patient, there’s a feeling of comfort, almost relief, to find her “Nurse Voice” here, the voice of authority that her position grants. And yet, the ubiquitous cancer patient swirl of decisions-tests-fear-helplessness is also loud and clear in this book, which lets readers know that this is for real. Pay attention: Brown also sneaks in love, and plenty of storminess into tales of her earliest career and what medical care looks like in America today. 

This is the kind of book you want if you’re already on the cancer treatment treadmill, or if you’ve just stepped off. Hand it to your doctor, pass it to a nurse, the happy ending in “Healing” will make you flip.

“Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient” by Theresa Brown, RN

c.2022, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill $27.95 272 pages