Updated: Sep 23, 2018
Susan Gubar, a retired English professor at Indiana University and accomplished author, was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2008 and told she would only live three or four years. But she’s been living with cancer for 10 years thanks to a trial she got accepted into in 2012 that she said “saved her life.” She wrote a memoir about her cancer experiences titled, “Memoir of a Debulked Woman” and she currently writes the “Living with Cancer” column for the online edition of The New York Times. Her book was mentioned on Humor Beats Cancer’s Instagram by one of our followers so we thought we would do a Q&A with her.
Humor Beats Cancer: How did you start writing The New York Times column?
Susan Gubar: I’m not a journalist but I sent some essays to one of the editors, Tara Parker-Pope. I was already a writer when I got this disease and my impulse was to write about it and I did a book or two about it. But I really wanted to reach more people. My first column, titled “Not a Cancer Survivor”, was about how I didn’t consider myself a survivor and didn’t have much faith that I would be. There is too much rah-rah battle language and some of us are not very confident we will survive and some feel that if we say the word “survivor” it will jinx us.
HBC: What goals did you have for the column?
SG: I don’t want it to be just about women’s cancer. I didn’t want it to just be about my own issues. I also wanted to make it clear that not everybody has the resources to fight cancer. There are not enough support networks for those with cancer in economically disadvantaged areas.
HBC: What misconceptions do those without cancer have about those with cancer?
SG: I mentioned it earlier, one of the misconceptions is that people assume everyone has resources to deal with it. But sometimes you have to go to a hospital daily or once a week. In rural areas that is a real problem. There are also all kinds of psychological issues we face — melancholy, depression, fear and anxiety. I really don’t think people who haven’t had cancer understand what it’s like to deal daily with our mortality. This is a very drawn out affair. With treatment these days, people are living longer with cancer. But because we are living longer we have to live with the fear and that can create anxiety.
HBC: How has the column affected you personally?
SG: It’s made me a much less lonely person. It is a bright spot. I also get to learn from people like you. There have been very beautifully written memoirs by men and women and poetry and visual arts that help combat the anxiety and depression people with cancer feel.
HBC: Do you ever write about humor and cancer?
She did. In her Oct. 12, 2017 column titled “Cancer Humor” she describes how humor and laughter can “lighten the load. Cracking up may be a better option than breaking down.”
She talks to various authors who inject humor into their writing about the disease.
“Devoid of self-pity, cancer humor proves that raging fear passes, when transmuted through ironic camaraderie — with friends or prospective readers or lab animals — into emotional clarity. The gift of these creative works: They foster a sense of community with the living and also with the dead. We are not alone in what we go through.”
And we at Humor Beats Cancer couldn’t agree more!