Review: ‘Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care’

“Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care” by Anne Boyer was a book that I was not exactly looking forward to, but I felt compelled to read it because it was about cancer, because it showed the process of a woman fighting for her life, and because of its raw and tangible emotion.

Before I read the book, I had no real idea about the hardships of chemotherapy. I always wondered why some would choose to just pass away without trying to fight for their life. After all, a small chance is better than no chance, right?

But after reading this book, I understood why some would choose to not go through chemotherapy. lists countless side effects, some of which are fatigue, hair loss, easy bruising and bleeding, nausea and vomiting, sores and pain with swallowing, peripheral neuropathy or other nerve problems, such as numbness, tingling, pain, and skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change.

And after reading through the book, I found countless examples of these side effects, such as nails lifting off their beds and certain procedures that Boyer had to do before a treatment to prevent such and such negative effects, preparations that for me seemed not just tedious but sometimes even painful. However, these procedures became a daily ritual for Boyer and countless others battling against cancer for their lives.

However, the entire book was not just about the sadness of cancer, nor the hopelessness of possibly never recovering, nor the resentment of the injustice that some people will have cancer while others will not. 

Instead, the book incorporates all of those emotions and more, such as happiness and even hope. The author actively reaches out to doctors and other trusted health officials, and the readers can see that the author is desperately trying to find ways to recover.

What really struck me was the way that Boyer kept her book flowing in a way that I could not only easily understand but was also continuously invested and interested in reading. For example, some of her chapters were just a page, while others were ten. This may have seemed choppy, but the writing segued naturally into each chapter without breaking.

The author’s use of language also surprised me. For example, she talked about a “soft uncertainty” which for me was confusing since uncertainty is widely regarded as a confusing thing that people do not want to consider. To be uncertain about something was to be left in the dark, quite a contrast from the softness Boyer described it to have.

Perhaps this has another deeper meaning. For Boyer, uncertainty would probably seem soft compared to the harsh ravine of chemotherapy she was going to go through. Looking back in retrospect, Boyer certainly would think that not knowing was a happier time than knowing. What seemed like an arbitrary use of language turned out to have a layer of emotional pain embedded inside of it.

This is not the first instance where Boyer uses deeply layered and symbolic language. She also skillfully uses similes, such as when she stated, “In the week before chemotherapy, it is like preparing for a winter storm,” a description making it poignantly clear what an ordeal chemotherapy is. 

As someone who has not gone through chemotherapy or even known someone who has, this helped me understand the flurry of getting ready, making preparations, but also the underlying dread that comes with this painful treatment.

“Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care” may not have been my first choice for an afternoon of reading, but after reading it, it gave me a strong feeling of sympathy and an acute sense of empathetic pain for cancer patients. Boyer’s successful use of figurative language and bleak descriptions of everyday life dealing with the suffering of cancer and going through chemotherapy helped me understand her journey in the fight for her life.