Full of passion, hope, and despair, this is an extraordinary book about the journey through a devastatingly common disease. After a troubled, unhappy upbringing that saw the deaths of her mother and aunt, she now had a loving partner and two beautiful children, and finally felt secure in her world.
Then, at 43, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she realized that while you can turn your back on your past, you can never escape your genetic legacy. This is not an account of how to accept the inevitable. It is a fight; a fight to survive, to stay sane, to protect her children from sharing the terrors that kept her awake at night and to stop BRCA1, the rare and deadly genetic mutation that had caused her cancer — from claiming another victim.
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It is a book about mothers and about motherless daughters and about love and fear. It is a book that is both beautiful and brutal, revealing how small moments of tenderness can illuminate a day, while a thoughtless action — a friend turning away for fear misery can be contagious — can almost break you. But it is also a memoir of breast cancer itself, from its first identification in the nineteenth century through to the founding of a hospital to help sufferers, and the treatments developed to fight it.
A mess of toxins at the bottom of a bottle. He is the wandering knight to her Belle Dame Sans Merci. So a psyche is born. I am reading aloud to distract myself. Everything from the nasty salmon-pink colour of the leaflet, a standard-issue Pantone number favoured by government departments and the NHS, to the brutal anatomical diagrams, and the remote possibility of finding something, combines to make this task distasteful.
Examining the smooth, clean skin of my breasts, I see nothing.
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He is concentrating hard to follow the commentary on the game, which is turned to low volume. This is our compromise. Low volume for public breast examination. The continual trade of marital relations. But the Spurs striker has just done a header that clipped the goalpost. There is the collective gasp, a sotto voce roar, of male disappointment.
A crash of testosterone up and down the country, which R, throwing himself back on the sofa in our narrow living room, echoes loyally. I turn back to the diagram with a sigh.
Eating Pomegranates eBook by Sarah Gabriel | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster
Confronting me, in fuzzy black-and-white print, is a semicircle standing on its tip. It looks like a protractor, or a rubber drain plunger perhaps. Inside it, a tangled mass of black lines converge angrily on a knob at the end. These are the ducts. Struggling to map this bleak geometry on to the living body, I finger my breast desultorily, unsure how to distinguish its naturally grainy texture from anything more sinister. Writing this, I am aware that this woman has something childish about her.
She should be upstairs, in front of a mirror, without a glass of wine, doing the job properly. The instinct is to move on. Lean over on creaking knees and take a little look. What is going on there? There is a picture of myself at thirteen.
The bedroom of a large manse in Scotland, a little chilly, windows open on to a view of hills. I have a few drops of bright blood between my legs. I found them earlier, in the toilet, freshly staining the skin. I have managed to tell my mother. This was not easy. She had five children and was often unavailable.
She is carrying a contraption made of white pads and cotton ropes. I have no idea where she got it, whether it is one of her own, or whether she had it in waiting for this moment. It looks like a kind of harness for the bottom half of the body. I remember the dirty pink and turquoise colours of the wrapping, aimed to capture femininity and hygiene, and somehow soiling both.
Then she turns to go. Her voice accelerates; seems to become more chilly. There is supper to cook, the washing to put out, the dogs to walk, the little ones to take care of. The next image is a scuffed green prefab building, Primary Seven, the last year before secondary school. I have seen these shapes for years inscribed on toilet walls and bus shelters. To see them posted up on a blackboard in this way seems obscene. The sperm fertilises the egg, which is implanted in the lining of the womb and fed via the umbilical cord with nutrient-rich blood from the mother.
You may do so confidentially. At the front, I watch her unfold it and frown. Later, the consequences of this self-hatred, the internalised phobia of the feminine. A yo-yo pattern of binge-eating and dieting. No, Mother, I will not become you however hard you try to fill me full of the food that will turn me into you.
I will stopper up my mouth. Your cooking, which you so poignantly love God knows why; how can it rescue you?
Excerpt: Eating Pomegranates: A memoir of mothers, daughters and the breast cancer gene
I shall defy you, refuse to grow belly, thighs, breasts. If you force the issue, I shall refuse to grow at all. I will not be destroyed by pregnancy after pregnancy until I am tired and broken and old beyond my years. I will not surrender myself to the tyranny of the male will. To be granted only half a place at the hearth. To be forced to offer cups of tea, meals, compliance, concession, admiration, desperation, anything to buy off the outpourings of male frustration and discontent.
And I shall not die. Suddenly and catastrophically at forty-two. Leaving five children and a husband behind. Until my dead mother walks back into the bedroom, kneels before me, and talks me tenderly through how to put on that contraption, with her eyes resting calmly on mine, her voice kind and measured, how am I to grow up? I may be forty-four.
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I may have children now myself. But I am still waiting.
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For how long did Hades have to press them on her before she ate?