Critical Conversations


“When you’re a patient receiving cancer treatment you have absolutely no control over anything. You know, the doctors tell me where I’m supposed to be, and at what time. So little things like getting a TV station or having somebody come and bring you ice water—just to feel like you have a little bit of control—become very important to you.”—Annie Baker

While recent years have brought an increasing number of memoirs about illness, along with accounts by clinicians, few writings have bridged the two and offered a depiction of a health-care experience from multiple perspectives. The portrait that emerges in this collection of interviews with a cancer patient and the medical professionals involved in her care is an extremely positive, even beatific one—these interviews resonate with their subjects’ grace and courage—yet it also provokes certain questions: Which accounts of illness and caregiving are culturally accepted? How do certain narratives serve us in difficult times? Finally, what are the ethical implications of questioning or probing such stories?

Danielle Spencer is the academic director of the Columbia University Narrative Medicine Program, author of Metagnosis: Revelatory Narratives of Health and Identity (Oxford University Press, 2021), and coauthor of the Perkins Prize-winning book The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in diverse outlets ranging from Ploughshares to The Lancet. Spencer, formerly artist and musician David Byrne’s art director, was a 2019 MacDowell Fellow and a 2021 Yaddo Fellow. 

Stephanie Adler Yuan is a Practicum Coordinator and a Lecturer in the Columbia University Narrative Medicine Program. A 2015 graduate of the program, Yuan has lectured widely about relationships of care and has led narrative medicine workshops for a variety of patient, student, and clinician groups at NYU Lutheran Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Maimonides Medical Center, and other medical institutions.