My quest to better understand all things female has often led me down delightful paths. Just the other day I spent twenty minutes online looking for the perfect bustier, followed by another twenty minutes in pursuit of the perfect little black dress.
Both searches netted important details that made Fast Lane better. Honest.
On the other hand, I’ve been reading a little more “women’s fiction” lately, and I’m surprised at how someone getting sick—with cancer in particular—is so often an important part of the plot.
Or maybe not.
First of all, I’ve recently read were Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a stunning piece of journalism about a woman who died of cancer, and Michael Perry’s Population 485, a stunning memoir of an emergency medical technician. Not exactly “women’s fiction.”
Cancer rears its ugly head, though, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, as well as in Karen McQuestion’s A Scattered Life. I asked McQuestion about this, and she said, “I wasn’t aware that there is an overabundance of medical stuff in women’s books—just as much as is necessary to tell compelling stories of life and loss.”
This echoes Jan O’Hara, a romance writer, former physician and author of the popular Tartitude blog, who said, “We often read fiction to see heroic people cope with challenging situations, but we also want to see average people cope with common problems in heroic ways.’
For sure, medical themes abound in stories by the women in my writer’s group. One of them, Christi Craig, who’s read her flash fiction on the radio and blogs at Writing Under Pressure, said women may be drawn to write and read about medical themes because “so many procedures include a lot of poking and probing. It’s all so disconcerting, we probably want to know how we each get out alive and with our dignity.”
Now, this is something every man should be able to empathize with. I’m talking about prostate exams. Then again, no one takes prostate exams too seriously. What male comedian doesn’t have a joke that starts with a doctor slipping on a latex glove?
In her book Cupcakes, Lies and Dead Guys, Pamela DuMond injects a few laughs into the subject with hilarious depictions of mammograms and cervical exams. “Humor is a great way to see your way past all the unpleasant stuff,” she told me. “A woman might bite your arm off during a 70% off sale at Nordies over a pair of Jimmy Choos. But that same woman would share a certain camaraderie with a sister over the indignities experienced during the majority of doctor visits.”
She said he uses humor to help her make it through doctor’s visits. “A couple of years ago I broke my arm. At the doctor’s office, the tech took my blood pressure. Apparently it was high. The doctor told me I high blood pressure. I responded, yes, I know, I just broke my arm.”
Maybe the issue is that no matter how scary the modern world can be, what with terrorism, environmental devastation and the prospect of being tossed out of our homes in a double-dip recession, there is still nothing scarier than cancer. Our own bodies plotting to do us in, sometimes silently until it’s too late. Or friends and family members get it.
I understand that fear, but I didn’t learn it from a woman. I learned it from my father, for whom every twinge in a body part not used directly for playing softball is a potential carcinoma announcing its presence.
So maybe women aren’t alone when it comes to medical drama. Sure, you can cite Terms of Endearment and Love Story, but you can also cite Brian’s Song and Up in the Air.
Plus, Craig noted that “mothers can’t help but sit around sharing ‘war’ stories” about being in labor.” Anyone who knows me knows I loves to tell my own war story about the death of my right anterior cruciate ligament in a basketball game.
The number of women suffering similar injuries is on the rise, so it’s possible that—if you figure in prostate exams—I have more in common with more women than I initially realized. Lesson learned.
Still, I’d rather research camisoles and cocktail dresses than cancer and cholera any day of the week.