According to Mary Elizabeth Williams, this is how “the bottom drops out of your world”: You get a phone call from your doctor, at the end of a wonderful summer, diagnosing you with malignant melanoma. Where do you go from there?
For Williams, the answer was to write about it. She began taking copious notes after her diagnosis. Her first article, My Cancer Diagnosis, started to explore her experience and now her new memoir, A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles, delves even deeper. She not only chronicles her own experience with melanoma and the clinical trial that eventually saved her life, but reports the science behind a cancer diagnosis and the intricacies of immunotherapy. She also tells the poignant stories of her best friend and father-in-law’s experiences with cancer. And the New York-based mother of two young girls, who’s also a journalist, does it all with a sense of humor. Case in point? One of the drugs in her clinical trial, ipilimumab, sounds to Williams like “a name you’d give a Teletubby, or the national dish of North Korea, or a vengeful Egyptian pharaoh.”
It’s doesn’t ruin the ending to let you know that we spoke with Williams—the first line of the book reads: SPOILER: I LIVED. We chatted about her writing process, her new outlook on parenting, a scene that didn’t make the book, and how she managed to keep laughing throughout.
Where did your awesome sense of humor come from?
I grew up in a family where being funny was a blood sport. That was how we said we loved each other. I remember the first time I got my period thinking, “This is the biggest joke the universe has ever pulled on me.” That’s always how I’ve approached things. With people who are close to me, that’s been the glue that holds us together.
How did you keep that sense of humor throughout your treatment?
When I first got cancer, I was looking all around for stories from other people. I felt like a lot of the narrative was overly inspirational and overly brave, whereas I felt like a hot mess a lot of the time. I wanted the people around me to know that was where I was coming from and I was not suddenly some hero because I had gotten sick. I also wasn’t some fragile delicate broken bird because I’d gotten sick. I was still me, and that meant being able to laugh at things and share in the humor of the situation.
What were your biggest misconceptions about cancer before diagnosis?
All of this language around cancer is so tricky. I didn’t know until I had to learn. [People] talk about cancer as a disease, when in fact cancer is a variety of sicknesses. If you find a treatment that works for melanoma, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for every other kind of cancer. It’s really easy to boil it down to a single disease and a single cure, and that [the word] “cure” means something like the way that you would recover from the flu. The more education and information, the better.
When did you decide to turn your experience into a story?
Almost immediately. I didn’t know how to not talk about it. Forty-eight hours after my diagnosis, I had published my first story about it. It felt like, whatever the outcome, I wanted to be involved in a conversation about it. I wanted desperately to be talking to other people who were going through similar experiences.
You had so many people contribute to the story— including journals from your husband and friends and interviews with doctors. Was there any moment that you heard from someone else’s point of view that really surprised you?
The one time in the book when I shift the point of view is when the doctor told my husband that [the tumor] was malignant and it was Stage 4. I was unconscious for that. He wrote it in a journal and then handed it to me. When I read on the page what it was like to sit in that room and have the surgeon tell him that yes, it was malignant and yes, I have cancer again… I couldn’t have imagined it until I read it on the page. It was intense.
People often “don’t know what to say” when someone is sick—was there anything people said to you during your illness that was unhelpful?
It’s not so much what people said—it’s what people didn’t say. It’s the people who didn’t ask what I was doing, who didn’t talk to me, who iced me out. There are people who dropped me completely. That was hurtful—it felt like I had been cast out, and that I had done something wrong. You don’t have to cure me; you just have to say, “How are ya?”
How has this experience changed you as a parent?
I really get it in a new way what kids are capable of if you’re honest with them and you invite them to participate in hard and scary experiences. As parents, our job is to run interference for hard and scary experiences—and still, that is my instinct. [But] when you can sit down with gentleness and love and talk to them in a way that’s real and honest and invite them into a conversation about grief or loss… I see now that that’s what gives them character, courage, and strength.
Given the countless notebooks you kept of the experiences, many things didn’t make it into the book. Was there a cut scene from the book that you really loved?
I wrote a really long and very detailed scene about the first time that Jeff and I had sex after I had my surgery. It was really something else. It was very comical and it was absurd and crazy and painful and bloody and weird… and I loved it. But then I realized it was also a “stop in your tracks” moment in the narrative, and I just thought, I have to let it go. I don’t want to say it was “too much,” but it was kind of too much—even for me.
What was the takeaway from that scene?
There’s new intimacy and there’s also a new distance. You become closer emotionally in a lot of ways [to your partner], but you’re also like, “I’m the sick one, and you’re the well one.” And that changes your dynamic. It’s the same way after someone’s been injured or after you’ve had a baby—you have to work your way back to Groove Town, and it’s not an express ticket.
You’ve had important, deep conversations with friends and family that many people don’t have until much later in life. How has that changed you?
It deepens you. I can’t forget now that I am a mortal being who will die and I don’t know when that will happen. Not that you’re still not going to be annoyed by people, or you’re not going to be trivial, or you won’t waste time looking at cat videos… it just makes you feel more awake. I want to be spending time with the people that really matter. I want to feel like when I go, whenever that moment is, that everybody knows how deeply I love them. While still looking at cat videos.