Critical Conversations

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“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 a faculty member in the Narrative Medicine and Bioethics programs at Columbia University. She previously has served as David Byrne’s art director and worked with the photographer Nan Goldin. Spencer, who holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.S. in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University, has been published in Wired, Creative Nonfiction, and The Hungarian Review. She is currently at work on a photo essay about cult-of-personality dictatorships.

Writer and editor Stephanie Adler Yuan holds a B.A. from Tufts University and an M.S. in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. She began her career as a travel-guide editor and contributor, and has since taught writing workshops at Columbia University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center.