How my cancer diagnosis turned reading from a habit into a compulsion

Confronted with news of a life-altering illness before she was 30, Alice Purkiss feared she'd run out of time to finish all the books she wanted to read. Here she shares what she learned about the power of reading on her road to recovery.

How a cancer diagnosis changed my reading habits
'I began reading with a new urgency'. Image: Alessandra Genualdo for Penguin

I was reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had read it on the bus to Lewisham Hospital, surrounded by kids in school blazers and I had read it in the waiting room of the clinic while the mechanisms of the hospital moved around me. I clutched it to my chest and carried it with me into the room where I was greeted by the kind doctor in the big bow tie who said the words which changed my life forever: “Miss Purkiss – there’s no easy way to say this, it’s cancer”.

There was no room for both the book and all of the information I’d been given about my diagnosis in my bag, so I shoved the leaflets in my satchel and clutched The Goldfinch to my chest again. I read the same page over and over as I travelled on various trains across London and then across the country to go and be with my family in the few days I had to process the news before a rigorous schedule of appointments and scans and tests began. The day after my diagnosis, I woke up with the book in bed with me. I had fallen asleep reading it. It’s funny, because I remember that book being part of that time so vividly, but if you asked me what it was about, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s so hazy to me.

I have long been a voracious reader, drinking in words like a thirsty marathon runner rehydrating after a long training run. I read for pleasure. I read to learn. I read for comfort. When I was younger, I read because I didn’t have many friends and the characters in books filled up the gaps in my life. I read on buses. I read on trains. I read in stolen moments. I read for hours at a time. I have been to nightclubs with a book in my handbag. The words of Margaret Atwood and Arundhati Roy, Charles Dickens, Zadie Smith, Phillip Pullman and many others have long been interwoven with my life.

'The day after my diagnosis, I woke up with the book in bed with me'

During the treatment to derail the tumour that had made its home in my right breast, my brain was preoccupied with surviving so I turned to old favourites, picking them off the bookshelf like they were old friends. As the nine months of my active treatment progressed and I became increasingly weary, fatigued by the battering my body was taking, I didn’t consume any new words.

When I was in hospital for my mastectomy, I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When I underwent my first round of chemotherapy, I was re-reading Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom. Childhood favourite The Bear that Nobody Wanted by Alan Ahlberg came with me when I stayed in hospital for five days with a nasty bout of neutropenia after chemotherapy had all but obliterated my white blood cells and I was dangerously susceptible to infection.

It was around this time that I read a Guardian article which suggested a “voracious reader” will read around 3,000 books in their lifetime. I became fixated on the idea. Had I wasted my time rereading old favourites while I was unwell? Three-thousand felt like too many and not enough at the same time. How would I read all of the great words of all the great writers with such only a lifetime at my disposal? What brilliant books would I miss out on if the cancer were to come back and steal precious moments of reading from me? Even if I live until I am 100, it would be impossible for me to read all the books I want to.

As I edged out of treatment and my brain began to recover from the battering it had taken by being diagnosed with cancer before I’d even turned 30, I began reading with a new urgency. I sought out the words of others who had faced a fiesty two-step with cancer. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air gave me strength to keep putting one foot in front of another when my mental health took a nose dive off a cliff edge at the end of treatment. Lost Fragments by Kate Gross reminded me to “be as grateful as I am that you love, and are beloved”. I turned to the poetry of Mary Oliver and asked myself what it was I wanted to do with my “one wild precious life”. Joan Didion reminded me other people knew what it was like when “life changes in an instant”.

The more I recovered, the more I read. My TBR (to be read) list grew quicker than I could read. For every one book removed from the list, four more were added. I wanted to fill up on the words I had missed out on while my brain had been on hiatus.

What brilliant books would I miss out on if the cancer were to come back and steal precious moments of reading from me?

Now reading is more of a compulsion than ever. I am constantly stocking up on the titles in my internal library. I want to read the bestsellers everyone is talking about and I want to devour the little known and more obscure titles. I want to read everything in-between. I want to read fiction that will bring life to life and non-fiction that will help me learn how to make the most of what little time we have on this planet. To paraphrase a line from 4321 by Paul Auster, I read because I want to understand the world, so I can figure out how to live in it. That need to figure out the world was never more true than when I was trying to stay alive.

In July of this year, it was five years since my diagnosis, which in breast cancer terms means I’m more likely to stick around long enough to hit that 3000 books target. Recovery has been longer and slower than I’d care to admit and much longer and slower than anyone warned me it would be. But I’m lucky: I’ve had many companions along the way. Family and friends have been my life force - and, unsurprisingly, words have continued to be a huge source of solace too.

I’ve been comforted in times of desolation by narrators such as Cassandra Mortmain, Scout Finch and Eleanor Oliphant, by writers such as Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig, Amy Liptrott, Maggie Nelson, Michael Chabon and Madeline Miller. I wrote and self-published my own book about my experience of breast cancer and depression in the hopes my words would offer solace to others in return. 

Words have stitched up wounds I didn’t even know I had. I have no doubt they will keep stitching up the new wounds that come from living and I have hope that they will keep doing so for a very long time indeed.

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