Books on Chemo

If I ever have to make a choice between reading a book or getting chemotherapy, I know what I’ll do. Unfortunately, life seldom gives us clear choices like that. Lynne, and a bunch of doctors, made the decision for me. It was unanimous. We don’t care, they said, if you ever read another book in your life. You’re getting chemo, and that’s all there is to it.

I can still read books on chemo. I got the thumb’s up on this. Not books on the topic of chemo. Books to read while I’m on chemo. Traditional books at home, e-books while I’m in the chair. A good one takes your mind off the poison they pump through your veins.

There’s a big difference between a book and a bag of carboplatin. If you don’t like the book, you can set it aside and start another one. After you start the bag, you’re not going anywhere or doing anything until it’s empty.

I got about halfway through Rumours of Glory by Bruce Cockburn. I found it to be a rather ordinary celebrity memoir, on the same level as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. Both men have written excellent songs, but their books didn’t grab me. At least, not the way Tom Wilson’s Beautiful Scars did. Or Keith Richards’ Life. That could reflect my taste in music, but I don’t think so. It’s more about my taste in books.

Sorry, Bruce, but I gave you back to the library. I decided to re-read Cigar Box Banjo by Paul Quarrington instead. He completed the book after a lung cancer diagnosis in 2009. He died in 2010. It’s a good book. The first time I read it, way back when, I wasn’t thinking about cancer. The disease added an extra dimension to his story but not much else at the time.

When the Friends of the Guelph Public Library inherited the Guelph Reads annual event in 2012, the first contestants were James Gordon, Karen Farbridge and Lloyd Longfield. I forget which book Karen defended, but James chose this one. Longfield took the most votes for his defense of Susannah Moodie’s Life in the Backwoods. No doubt t hat helped propel him to victory in the next federal election.

One of Quarrington’s novels, King Leary, won the 2008 Canada Reads on the CBC’s big stage.

Funny how these things go. Cockburn wrote better songs than Quarrington, but Quarrington wrote better books. This isn’t surprising since he had a bigger impact as a writer than as a singer. His cancer diagnosis is woven throughout Cigar Box Banjo. It is often poignant, never maudlin, and was largely unnoticed by me back then. I get it now, though.

There are two other books I read between naps over the last month. These are ink on paper page turners that don’t get into the chemo room. Only iPad e-books from the library have that distinction.

Linda McQuaig’s new book, The Sport and Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich Are Stealing Canada’s Public Wealth, tells the story of how public assets like Ontario Hydro and Canadian National Railway were built, and how they were dismantled and donated to the private sector.

If you read it, which you should do, pay close attention to Chapter Five. In this year of the pandemic, in the frantic search for a vaccine, we need to know about Connaught Laboratory. It began with a doctor’s search for a cure for diphtheria, a disease that plagued the working class neighbourhoods of Toronto early in the last century.

There was a serum available, but it was expensive. Out of the reach of most families whose children needed it. The doctor joined with the University of Toronto to establish a lab that developed a low cost, effective cure. Connaught became a world-famous facility. Doctors Banting and Best developed insulin there. When Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine, Connaught took over the production and distributed it at cost.

To make a long story short, Connaught was off-loaded in a U of T budget move. It was taken over by the federal government and sold by Brian Mulroney to a giant French pharmaceutical company. I don’t doubt that if it had stayed in the public domain and true to its roots, Connaught would be leading the race to develop and distribute a COVID vaccine.

The other one I’ve read recently is Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. It is about the venture capitalists who make millions from investments in good causes. And not so good ones. Things like Uber and Air B&B figure prominently. The founders of these companies made out like bandits while fighting to deregulate the taxi and hotel industries.

Giridharadas characterizes it as “doing well by doing good”. What’s the matter with that, you ask? A lot, I say. Read the book and see how one of the most celebrated “philanthropic” families in the United States was the Sacklers. They own Purdue Pharmacy, the company that made OxyContin and fed the opioid epidemic that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives.

More about this in a future post. Cancer does have a way of bringing you up close and personal with big pharma.

I’m back in the General tomorrow morning, then get next week off. I loaded a biography of American folk singer Odetta onto my iPad. It will keep me going for a while.

There’s still a lot of hair on my head, but more and more stays behind on my hair brush. Oh well.


  1. Paul was one of my favourite frequent flyer/guest authors at the Bookshelf and I have not undertaken Cigar Box Banjo. It’s now of the list. I think I’d get it. Thanks Alan.

  2. Hair comes back. Or not. We want you to stay with us, please.

  3. Alan…your reading choices are stupendous…some I read like Cigar Box Banjo…also Beauatiful scars….I saw tom Wilson last year at a book event in Uxbridge and he was dynamic. Your insights re big pharma and the rip off of benevolent communal access to cure is disturbing…thanks so much for your prose….Rolf says he is reading Lord of the Rings,he says hello and wants to know if you have read “Austerity : The history of a dangerous Idea ” by Mark Blythe…ps I love the insights re Bruce cocburn and Springsteen’s mundane autobiographies…..I trust you are comfortable….sorry re your hair.

  4. Every word resonates… thanks for all of them. Perhaps add a little Elmer’s glue in with your shampoo.

  5. So, no more Bruce bios for you then! I will add Cigar Box Banjo to my reading list. Thanks for highlighting it.

Comments are closed.