Tales from the Cancer Ward

Reviewed by:


Paul Cox
Transit Lounge Publishing (2011)
ISBN: 9780980846232
208 pages
RRP: $29.95

This book by filmmaker Paul Cox is about his personal cancer odyssey. The author embarks on relating his inner soul to the daily intrusive encounters and the upheaving impact of dealing with liver cancer, whilst waiting for a liver transplant. Cox was diagnosed with liver cancer in February 2009. Nine months later he received a liver transplant.

From the book title Tales from the Cancer Ward, and the introduction, one may believe that Cox’s own experience is mirrored by the experiences of Solzhenitsyn. A story set in a cancer ward, which deals with the themes of moral responsibility, mortality and hope. Solzhenitsyn’s focus depicted cancer as an analogy of the Stalin era, an era of human degradation and oppression. Cox, on the other hand, draws very few parallels.

Cox’s book traverses through the wilderness of his personal cancer journey. It is not an analogy between cancer and totalitarian regime. It is self-reflective. Rather than explore the reality of cancer, Cox takes the reader through various mazes. He develops a divergent view of life exploring his past, his career, money, politics and family.

When the author describes the emotional and psychological impact of being diagnosed with cancer, those impacts are described through bizarre dreams. In those dreams he grapples with the constraints and frustrations by the interminable wait for a suitable liver transplant donor. In his day to day living, he resents waiting for the phone call that a suitable donor has been found. This shackles him. He cannot plan ahead or travel as “…your life is in an endless holding pattern…”

The brief description of the author’s experience from the impact and side effects of chemotherapy is a path well-trod by many others. It is heartfelt. Only those who have had chemotherapy can appreciate his descriptions when he states “…the chemotherapy snake was in my arteries…” and [chemotherapy] “…this poisonous attack on my organic being…”, “..chemo cloud…” and feeling ill from the effects of chemotherapy. However, these poignant moments of vulnerability and mortality are often lost to the reader by the potpourri of distractions.

The author paints a clear picture of the frustrations which accompany a public patient in an Australian public health care system. Cox describes the nuisances of the ongoing repetition of being subjected to the myriad medical procedures and tests. The description of the parade of doctors he sees during outpatient visits defines the collective views and experiences of many. His disappointment at missing out on a liver transplant is fuelled with a kaleidoscope of emotion. It is not until the last chapters the author finally reaches the end point of his goal, a liver transplant with a successful outcome. 

There are many accounts of dreams throughout the book. The dreams appear to be a cathartic release. The bizarre nature of the dreams appears to be medically drug induced and hallucinogenic in nature. The dreams take the reader into a distorted and complex chasm that plunges you into an abyss of confusion at times. The dreams explain Cox’s own fear of never being a liver transplant recipient and dying when he is desperate to live. Thus, the dreams distract from his message that he did survive cancer.

Despite the fact that the author submerged his emotions of cancer through the expression of dreams, he has endeavoured to share his cancer odyssey with anyone suffering from the same malaise in the hope that they too can triumph over cancer. 

The book is a mixture of cathartic self-promotion and to some degree, reflections of human vulnerability when under siege as described in the dreams. It is not a self-help book for pending liver transplant recipients or any person facing similar circumstances. It is one person’s personal cancer odyssey seen through his eyes. To recommend as a resource book falls flat as it is not an easy book to read.

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