Cancer Vixen
by Marissa Acocella Marchetto
(Knopf, 2006)

"What happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, single-forever, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds ... a lump in her breast?"

So begins the story of 43-year-old New Yorker and Glamour cartoonist Marissa Acocella's battle against the breast cancer that surfaces a mere three weeks before her wedding. Turning her pain to art, she details the difficulties and indignities of her 11-month treatment -- one lumpectomy, eight chemo injections and 33 radiation treatments -- with a warmth and humor that makes it impossible to put the book down until you've finished the last, color-drenched, completely hysterical while simultaneously tear-jerking page.

An admittedly self-obsessed, shoe-devouring, fashion-following, weight-watching New York kind of woman who religiously follows the "It" life, Marissa gets a major reality alert on the verge of the happiest day of her life, which tests her self-absorption to the limits. Determined to be a Vixen and not a Victim, she girds her loins, straps on her best shoes and wears her very best lipstick to each and every treatment. She is "gonna kick cancer's ass," she tells her self, and swims through elation, doubt, existential despair and renewed hope while always trying to look fabulous.

While it may seem silly and superficial on the surface, looking good and wearing the latest lipstick is in reality Marissa's own personal banner against surrendering to a disease that could kill her. She never lets the reader forget that she is, at every moment of the day, in a fight to the death for her life. Fabulousness is her way of never giving up. She walks in no one's shoes but her own, so why shouldn't they be the best shoes she can get? After all, beating cancer is about finding out what truly sustains you, isn't it?

Among the people you come to know and love are her fiance, the wonderful Sylvano, her almost stereotypical New Jersey, loudmouth, opinionated, interfering, completely supportive and loving (s)mother; her Best Friends Forever, an eclectic assortment of people whose commonality is their great love and support for their friend (the staff of Glamour send her a bouquet of flowers the day of her first treatment with the single statement "Chemo: Schemo," which couldn't be more New York -- or more wonderful); and last but certainly not least the staff of St. Vincent's Cancer Center, whose professionalism never stops them from being human.

The book is sweet and optimistic while never flinching from staring pain and fear directly in the eye. Anyone who deals with cancer, Marissa's story tells us plainly, has to deal with all of the emotions involved. The best survival tactic is not wondering how you ended up with cancer because the reason why you have cancer is ultimately not as important as the need to be totally honest with yourself about whether or not you want to live, and, from there, never, ever believing that you will be beaten.

I learned many things about cancer from reading this amazing and funny book: that your breast will turn a lovely shade of turquoise blue from injections prior to surgery; that you can't go out in the sun or be near large crowds while undergoing chemo treatments; that there are a lot of wonderful people out there ready to cheer you on, and that you fight for them as much as you fight for yourself; and most importantly, that the "slingback" is, in fact, a type of shoe and not, as I previously thought, a weapon of some kind, an invaluable lesson for a woman with four pairs of shoes in her closet (cowboy boots, Converse All-Star high tops, sandals and one pair of black dressy Sketchers, which doesn't stop me from appreciating the importance of wearing blue metallic snakeskin lucite pumps to chemo sessions).

It is possible to survive cancer and do it in wonderful shoes. If you know someone dealing with breast cancer or are facing the disease yourself, you should absolutely give this brilliant, witty and beautiful book a try. Marissa's very personal and very human story will help you count your many blessings, one by one.

by Mary Harvey
6 January 2007

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