A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles: A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer by Mary Elizabeth Williams

When a young Manhattan mother and blogger is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, she decides to participate in a clinical trial in order to prolong her life.  Mary Elizabeth Williams is a freelance writer for Salon.com and the 44 year-old mother of two pre-teenage daughters when she receives the news that the scab on her scalp is actually a malignant melanoma and she must undergo treatment immediately for rapidly progressing Stage 4 cancer.series of catastrophes and miracles

The need for cancer treatment comes at an awkward time in Williams’ life when she’s having marital troubles and while she’s trying to guide her older child through standardized testing to get into a highly competitive public middle school in their large urban school district.  She reunites with her husband, but her situation is complicated by a father-in-law who has also been diagnosed with another type of inoperable cancer and is slowly dying of his condition.

With more than 100 types of cancer that affect humans, there are as many manifestations of the condition as there are differences in the people who suffer from it.  Williams recounts her successful remission after being treated with immunotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.  Her eventual remission is in stark contrast to the experiences of many of her friends in a cancer support group who received traditional therapies of chemotherapy and radiation for their various types of cancer.

Williams describes draining treatment regimens, insensitivity from the occasional doctor, and the mysterious disappearance of about one third of her friends because they are unable to cope with the specter of her illness.  The most amusing practice that Williams engages in is a guessing game in the elevators of the hospital in which she tries to imagine which riders are caregivers, which are staff and which are fellow cancer patients.

Other stories hinge on the outcomes of other participants in Gilda’s Club, a family cancer support group that Williams and her family attended named after the late Gilda Radnor.  It’s in this group that Williams’ own family finds some sense of comradery and normalcy amidst the chaos of her illness and where her children find understanding companionship.

I would recommend this memoir for any reader seeking to understand the process of cancer treatment and diagnosis as well as the emotional lives of cancer sufferers.  This particular story has a happy ending with Williams alive and well 5 years after diagnosis and part of a cohort that participated in very efficacious immunotherapy drug trial that was profiled in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Williams describes herself as the “valedictorian” of her cancer trial and the highly visible success stories from cancer immunotherapy regimens have sparked some unparalleled gifts to future cancer research—among them a $250 million donation to 6 top U.S. Cancer centers by tech billionaire Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook and the founder of music file-sharing service Napster.

By Lisa Kobrin is the Local History Librarian at the May Memorial Library.  She can be reached at (336) 229-3588 or lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org.