A debut memoir chronicles one woman’s experience with a rare gynecological cancer.
There are fewer than 6,000 new cases of vulvar cancer per year, making it a rarer type. In 2016, 46-year-old Torres was diagnosed with vulvar cancer—specifically, metastatic squamous cell carcinoma. She regretted not getting the painless lump looked at earlier; by now it was stage 4 and had spread to the lymph nodes in her groin. Having worked in the medical field for 10-plus years and recently completed a bachelor’s degree in health administration, this single mother knew just how serious her circumstances were. Surgery was arranged quickly, followed by five weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Torres adopts a self-deprecating attitude that makes light of distressing situations. She was embarrassed that her daughters had to help her to the bathroom and care for her wound, but “let me tell you that when you are dealing with vulvar cancer, dignity kind of goes out the window,” she asserts. The book forthrightly documents side effects, such as a pulmonary embolism, incontinence, and balance problems. There is the occasional striking metaphor, as when her skin was “starting to resemble plastic after it has been in the microwave for too long”—and in such a sensitive area. But the author remains relentlessly positive and spiritual, especially in her transcribed social media posts, in which she frequently mentions how much cancer has taught her and how her faith has sustained her. Most pages in the book, which features black-and-white family photographs, also use an encouraging Bible verse as a kicker. The problem with relying on social media posts is that they lend themselves to camouflage: People can gloss over unflattering aspects of their lives and hide uglier feelings. As a result, Torres rarely delves below surface emotions. The injustice of losing her job after a long-term disability leave and the precariousness of her financial situation (for example, she had to start a GoFundMe page) deserve more attention, for instance. Her wedding to a man named Lyle provides a sweet conclusion, yet the book’s ending seems premature because a “cancer-free” label isn’t generally applied until year five. (A physician contributes a final informational chapter.)
Dogged optimism about a medical crisis sometimes detracts from the power of honest recollections.