Poet, mother, hiker, Coloradan—these are all words that describe Carrie Host. But in October 2003, another word was added to the list: patient. Shortly after the birth of her third child, in the midst of unexplained, excruciating pain, Host’s life changed dramatically. What was initially thought to be an ovarian cyst, then a ruptured appendix, turned out to be rare and difficult-to-treat carcinoid tumors that had spread to her abdomen, liver and lungs.
Host’s Between Me and the River goes where many cancer stories go—the search for the right doctors, painful and humiliating tests, terrifying Internet searches, bouts of depression, surgeries and treatments. But this is no mere “cancer book.” The author, while sparing none of the difficult and horrifying details, tells her story with dignity and humor and gives credit where it is due: her husband and teenage children are her anchor and her siblings, doctors, and friends steer the boat when the river, which is the metaphor that holds this memoir together, threatens to drown her.
It’s easy to see who might enjoy this story (and, despite the heavy topic, it is a joy to read)—folks with illness and their friends and family. There is one group that should read it: doctors. Host mostly has good doctors, who listen to her story and carefully consider how they will answer her questions. They are not flip or dismissive and understand that a patient hangs on every word, listening for doubt or worry. When one of her doctors makes a mistake, he apologizes and accepts the fact that he is not God. Doctors don’t often hear how their words and actions can make such a difference to the patient and the family. Host’s clear memory of the most critical times in her illness will change the lives of doctors who take the time to read it.
It is sometimes difficult to read a story like this that hits close to home for any of us who have fought cancer or lived with someone who has, but Host’s sure voice and careful explanations allow us onto the boat with her, sure that, in the end, whatever that end might be, we will be better for the trip.
Robin Smith is a reader, teacher and cancer survivor in Nashville.