Title: Escape Points: A Memoir
Author: Michele Weldon
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Publication date: September 2015
Price: $26.95; hardcover, 272 pages
There are approximately 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, a number that is steadily increasing, thanks to our advances in detection and treatment. However, surviving cancer can leave a host of physical, emotional, and financial hardships for years after diagnosis and treatment.
In her new memoir, Escape Points, hard-working journalist and college professor Michele Weldon delves into a single-mother’s world of cancer survivorship as she maneuvers through a complicated life of long daily commutes, radiation therapy, rearing three young sons, and trying to deal with the financial and emotional stress of being abandoned by her abusive husband. As if dealing with cancer wasn’t enough.
In Survivor Mode Before Cancer
Although this is a memoir of survivorship, Ms. Weldon is in survivor mode long before she is diagnosed with breast cancer, which is not until 75 pages into her humorous, heartbreaking, and sometimes frustrating self-examination of a dislocated life. Ms. Weldon is a skilled writer whose style is crisp and conversational; however, she has a tendency, as do many memoirists, to cover the minutiae of her life as if readers will find each detail and daydream over morning coffee enthralling. Given her homey charm, however, many readers will forgive this minor flaw.
Her three sons are serious high-school wrestlers, a sport that the reader will learn quite a bit about, from single-leg takedowns to cauliflower ears. Then there is coach Mike Powell, an almost impossibly supportive presence who the author has on speed dial. He’s a terrific guy, a friend to Ms. Weldon and a mentor to her three sons, whose lawyer father had abandoned, chasing off to The Netherlands with a younger woman. And since the sport of wrestling serves as ballast for Ms. Weldon’s struggles, coach Powell’s character deserved the rich description offered by Ms. Weldon.
However, the first 75 pages of this memoir could have been edited down by half, without losing the salient points of background and characterization the author thought necessary to develop her story. That said, behind the well-intentioned prolixity is a deeply hurt woman doing her best to survive some pretty tough times, as evidenced by her first memoir, I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman.
The buildup to Ms. Weldon’s cancer diagnosis is foreshadowed with her very real and nicely described middle-aged body image issues, which are further highlighted by her tentative attempts to meet another man or evade suitors who remind her of her past marital perils. She writes, “The idea of being close emotionally or physically with someone—anyone—was far too unsettling.” Although this section is important to illustrate the author’s vulnerability prior to her cancer diagnosis, some of the writing becomes too chatty, as she tries to paint an interior portrait. “I was realistic and knew my limits; I am not a woman all men find irresistible. But I do not hate my body, because life was just too short for that brand of self-loathing.”
Her Cancer Ordeal and Then Some
Adding to the drama of her impending cancer diagnosis, Ms. Weldon loses her health insurance; her vindictive ex had stopped paying the premium. After her annual mammogram, she gets the dreaded call from her doctor’s assistant, “Dr. Werber saw your mammogram and wants you to come back as soon as possible for another look.” Ms. Weldon has an ultrasound and holds her breath as the doctor says, “This is not good, and we have to find out exactly what’s going on.”
A core biopsy confirms that the 1-mm lesion is malignant. She undergoes surgery and then begins radiation therapy. All of these tough events are handled in an unemotional stepwise fashion.
Describing her ordeal, from that first difficult step into the radiation oncologist’s office, to the intricacies of the treatment and its side effects, both physical and emotional—all while rearing her three boys and attending their wrestling matches and parent-teacher conferences—is the strongest part of the book. One reason is that it forces the author to use concise writing, steering her away from her tendency toward ornate and at times threadbare sentences. The result is a lively examination of the initial fear, loneliness, and emotional ups and downs that all cancer patients endure.
The waiting room was filled with close to 100 people waiting for several doctors in the center…. People in wheelchairs, people with walkers, men, women, black, white, Asian, Hispanic…. It was like a gate in the airport terminal, but with oxygen tanks.— Michele Weldon
About her first visit for radiotherapy, Ms. Weldon writes, “The waiting room was filled with close to one hundred people waiting for several doctors in the center; many were older, some younger, some were bald. People in wheelchairs, people with walkers, men, women, black, white, Asian, Hispanic—reading the paper, drinking coffee, watching TV, staring straight ahead. It was like a gate in the airport terminal, but with oxygen tanks.”
Ms. Weldon’s life doesn’t get easier. She goes bankrupt, has an ovarian cancer scare, battles her estranged husband over money, works two jobs, and struggles through her oldest son’s near-death experience with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Her sons’ amateur wrestling careers, deployed sort of as a metaphor for the lonely struggle of the individual to conquer a challenger, is laced throughout. In the end, Ms. Weldon is a survivor, and the reader will root her on from page to page.
A Good Read for Cancer Patients and Loved Ones
The takeaway is that although Ms. Weldon did not have the optimal nuclear family support system, she found support where she could, much of it driven by her strong will to beat cancer. Despite some flaky moments, it is a good, quick-paced read for cancer patients and their loved ones.
A note on the title: A wrestler gets a point each time he escapes from his opponent. Ms. Weldon tallied a lot in her nicely done memoir. However, her book doesn’t drill deep enough into the cancer experience to be a recommended read for The ASCO Post audience. ■