Songs from a Lead-Lined Room is a memoir rooted in truth and raw experience, with a sure and compelling voice. The lead-lined room is the radiation therapy unit where Suzanne was treated for breast cancer and is one of the settings of this diary she kept over those six and a half weeks, sharing her despair, confusion, and fear as well as the compassion and caring of her friends, her husband, and her fellow patients.
© Copyright Booklist.
© Copyright Library Journal.
Novelist’s cancer tale breaks positive-patient mold
Novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea likes inventing scenarios for her characters. The protagonists in her four novels have faced – with signature humor – hardships ranging from failed romances to lost dreams. But Shea’s newest book is a departure from the novels. In Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, Shea plays the leading role, not in a novel but in a true-life account of her bout with breast cancer.She was 41, in great physical shape, had a great marriage, and had made the jump from newspaper reporter to successful novelist. She was working on her fifth book and enjoying her self-described “good life, a life I was really grateful for,” when the cancer diagnosis came in 1999.
Gone was the gratitude, replaced with fear and resentment. When doctors told her she wouldn’t need chemotherapy after surgery, but would face seven weeks of daily radiation treatments, she went looking for information about radiation. And couldn’t find much.
“Computer searches turned up things about Chernobyl,” she said. After her first session in the lead-lined room, Shea went straight home to her computer. She couldn’t even talk to her husband until she had written about the experience. It was the beginning of her journal entries written after each treatment.
“I didn’t know this would be a book,” said Shea, 43, who lives in the western Massachusetts town of Bondsville. “I wrote as a form of therapy for myself. I thought it would make a great bonfire after I was finished.” But when she showed pieces of her work to her husband, Tommy Shea, and a few close friends, they encouraged her to find a publisher and share her journey with others.
But you’d be selling the book short if you stuck it under the “cancer” file. The book is a study in how a person responds to adversity and offers the same quirky humor found in her novels Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, and Around Again.
Shea writes that in the past she had thought that, if she were ever stricken with a dread disease, her general upbeat, faith-filled manner would have her not only looking good in her hospital bed, but feeling good, too.
“I’d try to make others feel positive as well, reassuring them that I’d be fine soon, quoting inspirational verses, setting records in learning how to talk or walk or whatever was my lost ability,” she writes.
But when it actually happened, Shea reacted differently. “After she got bashed in the knee and lay crumpled there on the walkway just off the ice rink, crying ‘Why me, Why me,’ lots of people were making fun of Nancy Kerrigan. Now I know, you get bashed out of nowhere, that’s what you wail.”
The cancer diagnosis knocked her out of the loop for a year. Or, as Shea said, “I spent a year falling into a hole and another year climbing out of it.”
She distanced herself from helpful friends and relatives, going so far as to put a “Go Away” mat at the door of her house. Even her husband got the cold treatment. She responded to his attack of kidney stones by having dinner while he underwent surgery.
The book chronicles her climb out and eventual return to the land of the living, with a renewed sense of life and all its sweetness and randomness. “I could have called this book Suzanne Gets Her Gratitude Back,” Shea says, laughing. “I came to realize how lucky I am. That I had cancer and have endured the treatment and am still here. I hope the book encourages people to find their own way of coping.”
© Copyright Philadelphia Inquirer.
© Copyright Booksense.
© Copyright Cure magazine.
Survivor From the Island of Illness
“More mammograms in a single day than there are M’s in the word,” is one way that Suzanne Strempek Shea describes the process that led to the discovery of her cancer. Happy with her life, married and a novelist at 40 years old, she suddenly finds herself inducted into a club that truly no one wants to join. Still, she manages to maintain her journal-keeping habits at the hospital. As chronicled in those pages, Shea finds it dismissive when well-wishers note that “only” radiation is needed.The tendency to make constant evaluations of one’s relative lot is one of the sobering symptoms of cancer, and Shea finds herself making comparisons between the past, present and the never-again-innocent future; between herself and her fellow johnny-wearers in the clinic; between the (lucky) healthy and the (unlucky) fellow ill. She also shows how hard it is for cheering friends to hit the right note, cringing when people seem to start mourning her death upon hearing her news. She uses the tragedy of Molly Bish, the young teen lifeguard who disappeared from her post sometime during Shea’s treatment, as a sympathetic distraction and a metaphor of uncertainty. The shadow of sickness falls on everything, but some things are made more precious because of it.
© Copyright Improper Bostonian.
Breast Cancer Action Newsletter
“I keep noticing that I am the youngest person I see in any of these rooms. Something about that bothers me, like, maybe there has been some kind of mistake-I’m not supposed to be here, really.”Thus begins 43-year-old novelist and former journalist Suzanne Strempek Shea’s memoir of the period of her life spent, after a lumpectomy for stage I cancer, undergoing radiation treatments five days a week for six weeks in the lead lined sub-basement of the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The book, based on journal entries that Shea kept at the time, centers on her observations in the waiting and treatment rooms. But there are scenes from “the rest of life” as well, all tinged with her newly developed “cancer perspective.”
This new perspective makes it hard for her to listen as her husband repeatedly shares with friends and family a rather macho account of his emergency kidney stone operation that year, a surgery in which the doctor claims to have removed the biggest stones he had ever seen in his career. But it is also a mind-set that motivates her to take time out despite fatigue to visit an apple orchard with her husband for the first time, savoring apple pie and fall foliage.
Perhaps because the book started as a journal, and certainly because the author is a good storyteller with a clean and honest style, I often felt as if I were reading the diary of a good friend. Of course, given that she has a thriving literary career, a flexible schedule, supportive friends and family, and health insurance-not to mention a primary care doc who puts other patients and the pharmacist on extended hold to chat with her during office visits-this is one friend who could make you really jealous.
Still, Shea is aware of her privileges and acknowledges the challenges faced by other women, including Luz, a Latina woman who sits opposite her in the waiting room each day and worries that by taking time off for treatment she could lose her job. Luz is 50 years old, with three kids and one grandchild, all of whom live with her. “It could be worse,” Shea reassures herself, “and here it is in front of me in 3-D full-color Kleenex-plucking life.”
There are some germinating kernels of activism in the text, enough to make Shea (like journalist Barbara Ehrenreich before her) one of BCA’s honorary “bad girls” of breast cancer. Consider her take on Breast Cancer Awareness Month: she laments that most of the women’s magazine coverage “was devoid of information or simply was feel-good material that skirted reality.” More specifically, Shea writes, there were accomplishments including adopting a child, starting up an outdoor-adventure company, learning to speak French, and noticing the grass growing. All good and admirable, but I found it horribly off-putting. I searched the pages for the boxes that began with, “I had breast cancer and then I fell off the edge of the earth and was hanging on by, like, one hand, then four fingers, then three, then two, then one, having tons of people who wanted to help but still feeling that alone, that freaked out, that misunderstood, and then I had surgery and treatments and needed to think for a thousand days, but now…” Then-only then-could come the new career as a gluten-free restaurant chef or the life as a foster parent for at-risk teens from a dozen third-world countries. Let’s have some acknowledgement of the middle part of the process. Please.”
Shea also describes her mixed feelings about the abundance of fliers and pamphlets advertising self-help classes for breast cancer patients in everything from alternative medicine to exercise to cooking. Like a student reviewing extracurricular activities at college orientation, she is glad they are available but intimidated by their scope and variety.
Although here (as is often the case) suffering has led to great artistic expression, it is interesting to consider recent reports on brachytherapy, a prospective new form of radiation treatment in which a balloon catheter inserts radioactive “seeds” into the breast after a tumor is removed. The experimental treatment delivers a concentrated dose of radiation directly to the site where cancer is most likely to recur, a process lasting (gasp) only five days for women with early stage breast cancer.
Regardless of whether this new form of treatment proves successful, there are still many women who have experienced or will experience the six-week radiation process, and they are likely to find comfort and kinship in Shea’s account. I would love to see groups of people discussing this book. I am not sure that there is broad enough appeal for a general book club, but certainly folks in breast cancer support groups could read and discuss it together.
© Copyright Breast Cancer Action Newsletter.
© Copyright Seasons.