’I’d recommend Cooking with Cancer to everyone, but particularly those working in healthcare’
Title: Cooking with Cancer
Author: Julian Flanagan
Publisher: Mica Press
Reviewer: Emma Matthews, Staff Nurse, Royal Marsden Hospital
What was it like?
Cooking with Cancer traces Flanagan’s odyssey through cancer. Beginning with his ‘one idiot hope’ that the blood in his stool is actually cancer to save embarrassment, through a hazy post-operative stint in ICU, to finally balancing everyday life with cancer’s lurking threat, ‘stone fingers […] permanently crossed’. These chunks of Flanagan’s life are split into Starters, Main Course, Afters and Digestif. This analogy works well; cleverly echoing the anticipation, all-consuming headiness, sudden sweetness then lingering after taste, that precede, accompany and succeed an overwhelming feast.
What were the highlights?
Flanagan impressively covers the uncovered, offering an insight into a newly disturbed world from the cancer patient’s perspective. This is exemplified no better than in Flanagan’s use of juxtaposition: he subverts pleasant and innocent scenes, ‘As the children’s weaving tread made this stretch of Fulham Road a building block in their shared memory’, with cancer’s sinister and sly presence: ‘the tumour grew’.
Strengths & weaknesses:
Flanagan asks us to reconsider words that, for healthcare professionals, too easily adopt routine clinical formality by placing them alongside the jarringly human. For example, peripheral neuropathy is taken from its usual context in ‘Afterwards you might feel a tingling when you touch something cold’ and placed into a startlingly real one: Flanagan compares eating Frosties to ‘a hedgehog’ in his mouth, meanwhile ‘nettles stream from the tap’ when washing his hands. Perhaps only in these highly relatable situations does the weight of cancer’s cruel disruption to everyday hit home.
Similarly, ‘Bad Language’ undermines the language used in stoma care – Flanagan can just about handle his new stoma; it is the accompanying words ‘adhesive flange’, ‘velcro ears’ and ‘leakage crease’ that unsettle him. This begs the question of why such ugly - even comical - words must be used at an already uncomfortable time. It also asks us to never second guess the things which may impact a patient most.
These ungainly words are contrasted with the fantastical metaphors that Flanagan leans towards. In ‘Stan, Monologue Artist’, the clinical becomes wondrous, as ‘a morphine dragonfly feeds [his] hand’, ‘a clown’s nose of stoma pokes from [his] waist’, and ‘a jelly fish catheter hangs’. As well as echoing a drug-induced haze, Flanagan’s choice of words transcend his then difficult reality. This is particularly evident in ‘Chemonaut’: a woman, ‘whose destination is uncertain’, becomes ‘an Apollo astronaut’, catapulted ‘on a mission’, negotiating ‘the drugs’ as they ‘claim territory’. Harking back to this childhood sense of imagination and adventure highlights an innocence in Flanagan and the ‘Chemonaut’, an homage to the vulnerable child within.
Who should read it?
I’d recommend Cooking with Cancer to everyone, but particularly those working in healthcare; it is often easy for us to become desensitised to the challenges our patients face – no matter how big or small. Cooking with Cancer humanises these challenges, asking us to flip our perspective from that of care giver to receiver, and also of the impact our actions have: ‘Therapists’ offers a touching account of how shame and embarrassment can be ‘[lopped] with a scalpel of chat’, ‘remembering things [patients] said about [their] life outside this room’. Essentially, Cooking with Cancer is a short, snappy collection of abstract but accessible poems. It creates something beautiful from something ugly, extracts meaning from the absurd, and bridges the gap between art and physiology – just like nursing does in many ways. And I loved it.
cooking with cancer