Book Review: Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year

by Briana Weeger

Only a few hours after Jennifer Spiegel is diagnosed with breast cancer, she is immediately on the page, sorting her thoughts and emotions through writing. “At this point, I have no clue what stage it is, if I’m going to die, if I’ll have one or both breasts cut off, or if nothing will be removed at all. I will tell you this: I instantly feel that my body is the enemy.” The result is a candid and compelling debut memoir by novelist Jennifer Spiegel, Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, A Writer’s Memoir In Almost Real Time.

Spiegel’s memoir in “almost real time” reminds me of a story I once heard about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s. The man was due to give a presentation to a large gathering of people and had only recently been diagnosed. Right as he walked on stage, he forgot why he was there and what he was presenting. Looking out to a silent crowd, and not knowing what to do, he started to name out loud the emotions he was feeling. Frustrated, confused, frightened, alone. It was a method his psychiatrist had recommended that could help him to calm down when he had a memory lapse and began to feel anxious. Standing on that stage, it helped. He started to relax and remembered why he was there. After the event, many of the audience members approached him and told him that was the most powerful part of his presentation. Spiegel’s memoir has a similarly powerful effect.

Spiegel makes it clear throughout that this is not one of those cancer books you’ll find on the self-help shelf at your local bookstore. Nowhere in the text does she use “absurd rhetoric and call it ‘battling’ cancer and ‘surviving.’” Spiegel writes: “My book will clearly not help you. But what I seem to do—or be willing to do—is expose myself for the sake of the narrative.” Like the man with Alzheimer’s, Spiegel stands in front of her readers and names, questions, and curses all of the things that happen to her, unflinchingly and unapologetically.

From the start, Spiegel speeds ahead in her sense making. With the limit of “I’ll give you one year” in mind, and time marching through each chapter, Spiegel’s narration races forward down a path that avoids nothing. She doesn’t shy away from big life questions, like how much to allow cancer to shape her identity. Instead, she interrogates with sardonic humor. “Who am I, after all? A woman? A wife? A mother? Am I too old for this shit? Should I just succumb to the newness, be like liquid that takes on the shape of its container, change color to suit my surroundings? Is this then my new identity: cancerous, stricken, dying?”

She confronts how a mastectomy and baldness bring into question ideas of femininity and sexuality, goes on a family Disney adventure with tissue expanders, comes to terms with accepting help, reflects on marital shifts as her husband, Tim, becomes the caretaker, explains mortality and life lessons to her children, and leads us through the many appointments, surgeries, transformations, hopes, and disappointments. Her candor burns as dangerously hot as her “prematurely launched into menopause” hot flashes. Spiegel writes the ultimate “unguarded cancer story.” She bares her insecurities, jealousies, flaws, and anger in the midst of carrying “the fuck on.”

In one of multiple sections where Spiegel documents the funny things her daughters have said and done while growing up, she explains, “After a bath, Wendy was stark naked and doing ballet stretches in our room. Tim came in to get her dressed, and she said to him, ‘I’m like this because I’m doing this!’” It is clear that Wendy takes after her mother. Spiegel is like this because she’s doing this. She is like this, a writer who is blatantly honest, because she is doing this, removing buffers and scorning self-protection.

“That is my redemptive end: I affirm, completely, my willingness to use my own life as a palette, pens instead of paint, the canvas of my body, to tell you this story about what it’s like.”

With a raw openness and biting humor, Spiegel navigates through the way breast cancer ravages her relationship with her body, her family, and her identity. Like the man with Alzheimer’s, facing the anxiety that comes with illness, she puts words to her experience, and she looks to writing to find a way through it all. It is a fierce and fevered journey she allows us to bear witness to.

Briana Weeger is a native of Southern California and is currently an MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. An alumna of UCLA and Brooklyn College, Briana works with underserved and immigrant youth using story crafting and storytelling as a means of self-discovery and empowerment. In her own writing practice, she is exploring the impact of often overlooked social customs with a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.