No Cure for Being Human (2021) is the thoughtful chronicle of Kate Bowler’s attempts to make the most of her life after a brutal cancer diagnosis at only 35. Part memoir, part critique of the widespread obsession with positivity, No Cure for Being Human is a poignant dispatch from the fragile border between life and death.
Who is it for?
- Those who’ve supporting a loved one through a serious diagnosis, or have received one themselves
- Critics of the prosperity gospel and impeccably curated Instagram feeds
- Those grappling with the idea that they, too, might be incurably human
What’s in it for me? Gain inspiration from one woman’s battle with cancer and the spiritual lessons she learned along the way.
Kate Bowler knew better than most that there’s no quick fix to the pain and messiness that comes from the simple fact of being human.
As a professor, she’d written books critiquing self-help gurus and evangelicals who insisted you could pray your way to your “best life.” In fact, she was absolutely certain the contemporary concept of “living your best life” was toxic and shallow.
Ironically enough, at the age of thirty-five Kate really was living her best life. She was happily married to her childhood sweetheart, mother to a much-loved toddler, Zach, and enjoying professional success in a competitive field.
And then Kate was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Best case scenario? Two years.
Kate always knew her time on earth was finite. But she’d never imagined it might feel so finite, so soon. Critical as she was of the concept of “best life,” Kate was now faced with an urgent question: How could she best spend the life she had left?
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- what the prosperity gospel and Peloton have in common;
- the reason you should consider not making a bucket list; and
- why pain doesn’t need to be framed as a learning experience.
A meltdown in the hospital gift shop.
As a rule, hospital gift shops are stocked with scrupulously inoffensive wares. Think tasteful potted plants, greeting cards with euphemistic messages about “recovery,” and books of the uplifting, spiritual variety.
So why is Kate Bowler standing in the gift shop of a North Carolina hospital, wearing a baggy cotton hospital gown and trailing her IV drip behind her, surrounded by a pile of books she has plucked from the shop’s shelves? And why is she, in no uncertain terms, telling the nonplussed teenage shop assistant that these books are inappropriate – no, outright offensive – reading material for a hospital gift shop?
The reason Kate is in the hospital is written clearly on her chart. After suffering through months of unexplained abdominal pain, nausea, and dramatic weight loss, Kate has at long last been diagnosed – with cancer. And it’s a particularly horrible form of cancer: Kate has stage four colon cancer. Her colon is riddled with tumors that have spread to her liver. The survival rate for this scenario is hardly promising, at 14 percent. And even that word, survival, is a bit of a misnomer; of the fourteen percent who do “survive,” most only live another two years. Despite her young age and her – until now – good health, Kate is living on borrowed time.
The reason she’s causing a scene in the hospital gift shop isn’t so immediately apparent. But if we take a look at the books she’s pulled from the shelves, it all starts to come into focus. They’re all Christian best-sellers, and they’re mostly written by those who preach the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel teaches that if you serve God faithfully, you’ll reap the rewards: health, wealth, and happiness. This sounds simple enough, but scratch the surface of this superficially uplifting ideology and you’ll find a more sinister subtext. If God rewards those who have faith in Him, then those who suffer must have brought it upon themselves. If you’re poor, or sad, or sick, the thinking goes, your faith must be lacking. If you have stage four colon cancer, the thinking goes, then it’s your fault.
Kate’s a Christian herself, but she’s always found the teachings of the prosperity gospel antithetical to her own open-hearted, empathic, and accepting form of Christianity. And as a professor of the history of Christianity in North America, she’s spent a lot of time critiquing not just the prosperity gospel, but the broader industries of wellness and self-help that peddle the same essential idea: that, through a series of choices and behaviors, you can not only control your life, you can perfect it. You can avoid pain and suffering and misfortune altogether. Living your “best life” is within your grasp.
Now, of course, her issue with the idea of the best life isn’t purely academic. It’s personal.
What’s wrong with “living your best life,” anyway?
Let’s leave Kate in that hospital gift shop for a moment. Her story will pick up again in the next chapter, where she grapples with her diagnosis. But to understand her story, it’s also important to understand exactly what the concept of “best life” is, and why Kate has pushed against it her whole career.
“I’m living my best life.” All of a sudden, it’s a phrase that’s all but ubiquitous. Wellness gurus, hip hop artists, and Peloton instructors alike exhort us to live our best lives. We’re targeted with ads for products from cleansing juices to productivity apps, each of them claiming to be the one thing we need to attain our best lives. Skimming the self-help section of any bookshop reveals all kinds of methods for achieving the elusive best life, from winning friends and influencing people to condensing our professional lives into a four-hour work week. And of course, once “best life” – or at least the appearance of it – is attained, it has to be scrupulously documented on social media. #blessed, as they say.
But where did this concept of “best life” originate? How did so many of us come to subscribe to the idea that life will be perfectible if we simply apply the right product, strategy, or mindset to it?
The idea that through force of will we can transcend life’s messiness and misfortune is hardly new, but its current iteration has roots in the New Age movement of the ‘70s. To the generation obsessed with freeing your mind, it didn’t seem crazy that the mind could rise above mediocrity and negativity to access a better version of life.
In the ‘80s, this idea became enshrined in the self-help movement, which quickly found a foothold in the zeitgeist. In fact, in 1984 the New York Times had to start a best-seller list just for self-help literature, so that other genres could get a spot in the paper’s regular bestseller list. At their core, these books shared a message: You might want to achieve professional success, find romance, lose weight, or gain wealth; whether or not you can boils down to you and your mindset. There are no circumstances that, with sufficient will and discipline, you cannot rise above. In other words, if you’re single or fat or stagnating in your career, the problem is you – and only you can fix yourself.
In 2004, the evangelist and proponent of the prosperity gospel Joel Osteen coined the term “best life.” Osteen’s phrase has since been picked up by Instagram influencers, reality TV contestants, wellness gurus, personal trainers, and even Oprah. Why the traction? It’s perhaps the most succinct distillation of the belief underpinning contemporary narratives of self-help, wellness, and evangelism: that we are in control of our lives, and, with sufficient control, we can perfect them.
Kate knows the truth. Life isn’t really something you can control. Being human means being messy, making mistakes, suffering misfortunes. Since her cancer diagnosis, that’s a truth she’s been living every day. But as she contemplates how to spend what time she has left, she’s been shocked to discover the many ways she’s tried to perfect and control her own life.
Spending time when there’s hardly any time to spend.
Before cancer, Kate’s life was a series of carefully cultivated choices, all designed to add value to her existence. A lot of them were good, even great, choices. She’d chosen to marry her childhood sweetheart, Toban, who also happened to be the love of her life. Together, they’d chosen to start a family, and the result was their wonderful son, Zach.
Of course, each of these choices was once just a wish or a yearning. It was Kate’s hard work and relentlessly positive outlook that allowed her to bring them to fruition. Or so she always thought. Now, with the foundations of her life crumbling beneath her, Kate saw that each carefully crafted choice was also underpinned by sheer luck and random chance.
Yet in the face of her diagnosis, society still acts as though her choices carry weight. Acquaintances send cards that frame cancer as a battle that can be won, leaving Kate to wonder whether those who lost the battle simply didn’t fight hard enough. Cheery memes exhort her to “kick cancer’s butt!” As if that were something she could choose to do. Kate knows she didn’t have a choice. Cancer did. Cancer chose her.
Frustrated as she is by the idea that she has a choice in how her deadly illness might play out, Kate still finds herself trying to control her existence, using just the same tools she always did in the past.
She works hard. As an academic, she treats cancer like yet another subject she can master, as if the cancer rapidly metastasizing through her were sixteenth-century Italian politics or conversational French. Pre-cancer, she strove for professional excellence – juggling work and childcare, striving toward inbox zero, netting glowing teaching evaluations. Now, she keeps striving, reading medical papers and learning jargon.
And she thinks positively. She is determined not to let any happy moment, any meaningful interaction pass her by. She writes gratitude lists to pin down every meaningful moment in the day, to wring out joy without missing anything. But the more she tries to capture these ephemeral things, the less she enjoys them.
She doesn’t have much time left. And it slowly dawns on her that she is treating this time the way she did pre-cancer – as if every hour presented an opportunity for productivity. As if piling productive hour on productive hour were a pathway to her own best life.
What does it really mean, to make the most of the time she has left? How can she disentangle her relationship to time in a society that seems to value time only insofar as it offers the opportunity to be productive and profitable?
Kate can’t master time, she realizes, any more than she can master her life. All she can do is surrender to its flow.
A life quantified in ten key experiences? The case against bucket lists.
Kate is sitting across from a mental health counselor called Caitlin, who is gently asking her if there are any experiences she’s always dreamed of having or skills she’s always wanted to acquire. Maybe she wants to take up oil painting or look down on Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower or finally dance the tango before . . . well, this last part is unspoken, but it hangs in the air between them. Before time runs out.
Then, Kate is offered a tiny glimmer of hope. She’s been invited to take part in an immunotherapy trial. She’s part of a small percentage of patients with colon cancer who might – potentially, just maybe, no promises – respond to a cutting-edge drug-treatment plan. For Kate, this means flying every week from North Carolina to Atlanta, to spend the day receiving a combination of chemotherapy and drug treatment while a team of doctors gathers data, asking her how much pain she’s in on a scale of one to ten.
As part of the trial, Kate’s been offered some mental health support. As part of this support, Caitlin, the counselor, is prodding her to consider making a bucket list. Rather than making a list, Kate begins to wonder where the term bucket list comes from. These days, a bucket list is framed as a fun checklist: learn this, see that, go there. Tick as many boxes as you can!
The phrase has its origins, though, in “kick the bucket,” a rather horrible euphemism for “die,” as people committing suicide sometimes kick the bucket out from under their feet before hanging themselves. Here is the dark underside to this cheery concept: you need to tick all the boxes before you die. After all, if you haven’t visited the Grand Canyon or made your own cheese, have you really lived?
This tendency is not new. In fact, it’s about as old as the eternal anxiety that we’re squandering our precious time on earth. So we make lists. Once they’re completed, we can die sated. The ancient Greeks came up with Seven Wonders. Medieval pilgrimages were basically checklists of “bucket list” churches and saints’ relics. There’s a trend in publishing for books with titles like 1001 Cities to Visit Before You Die. Or 1001 Movies to See or Sandwiches to Eat, and so on, ad infinitum.
Kate is reminded of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that he wanted to “suck out all the marrow of life.” She can’t help but feel that, when it comes to sucking life’s marrow, determinedly working through a list might be missing the point. Aren’t bucket lists just a way of imposing order on something that is an inherently disorderly experience – being alive?
In the airport lounge on yet another trip to Atlanta, Kate is reading a book about the French Revolution, where she learns that the revolutionaries made it their project to bring order to the newly born nation. Previously, France comprised 26 provinces of various shapes and sizes. The zealous revolutionaries redrew the map. Voilà! France now comprised 89 orderly, equal-sized “departments.” But in their drive to impose order, they had overlooked culture, dialects, natural borders, communities – the stuff of life itself. Then and there, Kate resolves not to quantify away the stuff of her life. Instead, she settles for the less quantifiable but more meaningful business of simply living.
Is working hard hardly working?
Math isn’t Kate’s strong suit. She’s a humanities scholar, specializing in the history of Christianity in North America. She can tell you all about the rise of the megachurch or the place of women in contemporary evangelism. But all of a sudden, her life is all about calculations. Impossible calculations in which, no matter how she tries to balance them, she can’t come up with a satisfactory answer.
She’s responded well to the immunotherapy trial. The tumors that once crowded her colon and liver have shrunk. But they haven’t disappeared. They are still a feature of every scan and every x-ray. In particular, there’s a nasty-looking tumor in Kate’s liver, nestled right next to a vital cord that transmits blood to her lower body.
That’s where the math comes in. What percentage of Kate’s tumor can a surgeon excise without cutting into the nearby cord, leaving Kate to bleed out on the operating table? What percentage of Kate’s liver can be removed before she suffers complete organ failure? How much of her tumor can Kate live with? How much of her liver can she live without?
Time and time again, Kate and her medical team try to solve for x. But the solution remains elusive.
But Kate’s performing other kinds of calculations, too. To achieve tenure, she needs to tick through an academic bucket list of sorts, writing two scholarly books and eight papers, all in the space of seven years.
Up until her diagnosis, her time as a professor was crowded with achievements. Now, they’re on the back burner. But the clock is still ticking, and time is running out on her tenure dream.
But is tenure really still her dream? Back from medical leave, she looks around her office. She’s achieved so much, but she’s paid a price. She has a beautiful son, Zach, but like most of her female colleagues, she hasn’t had more. She has only 24 hours in a day, and parenting even one child while working toward tenure . . . well, it just doesn’t add up. There’s that math again. Looking at the papers she’s authored and books she’s read, she is perplexed by her past self, who thought she had so much time to spend. If she had known her time would be so limited, would she have spent quite so much of it in this academic niche? Would she have spent so much time on her work, full stop? And yet, there is the itch to work, and finish the book she is writing.
A wise friend tells her that she can spend all the time she has left with Zach and Toban, if she wants. But writing her book won’t be fruitless, either. If she loves her work, this friend tells her, her husband and son will find her in there, too.
This is how Kate reconciles herself to her past and present professional choices. She accepts that blind careerism is pointless. But having a calling gives life meaning. Our calling can be where we find ourselves and where others find us, too. If only it weren’t sometimes so difficult to sort the one from the other.
Kate writes scholarly books, not novels. But what happens next in her cancer diagnosis can only be described as a plot twist.
On the pointlessness of pain, or why not everything needs to have a meaning.
First, there’s the good news: Kate opts for a liver resection, meaning a large, tumor-riddled chunk of her liver will be removed. The biggest tumor is deemed inoperable, but there’s hope it might respond to radiation.
Next, there’s the great news: at a follow-up meeting with her oncologist, the big, malignant, inoperable tumor has shrunk. It’s shrunk so much it’s barely discernible. At the next follow-up, it has vanished completely.
Then the terrible news: Kate meets again with her liver surgeon, expecting to talk about her scar and how well it’s healing. Instead, he hands her a scan of her liver. She knows what the ominous black blob on the scan is even before the surgeon can tell her. Another tumor. A big one. Things do not look good.
Finally, the wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-read-about-it news: After Kate has accepted the new, bleak prognosis, told her family and friends, and started preparing for death, she gets an update on the tumor. It isn’t actually a tumor! The black blob was caused by a signal dropout during the scan. Kate is tumor-free.
So that’s it. She’s cured, which is to say in remission, which is to say as cured as someone who’s had stage four colon cancer can ever be. Her family are overjoyed. Her friends are thrilled. And she is . . . well, it’s complicated.
Of course, she’s grateful to be well again. But she senses pressure from her friends and family – not to mention society at large – to perform a positivity that she doesn’t feel. Why, she wonders, do people want her to pretend she is just as good as, if not better than, she was pre-diagnosis?
But she knows why. It’s all part of the best-life mentality.
The lie the best-life concept sells is that it’s possible to optimize your existence to the point where you bypass pain and suffering. But how does this school of thought deal with suffering when it inevitably arises? Easy. They reframe it. Pain is a challenge to be overcome, an opportunity to be exploited. If you don’t learn and grow from your pain, you’re simply not doing it right.
People who subscribe to this mentality often say how grateful they are for painful episodes in their lives. From celebrities discussing messy divorces on talk shows to scandal-mired politicians, the refrain is so often the same: I’m grateful for the pain, they say. It’s made me who I am today.
Well, Kate’s pain has made her who she is today, too: a person who is traumatized and depleted after multiple invasive treatments. A mother who dreamed of a sibling for her son whose cancer treatment has now left her infertile. A woman who has lost touch with her younger, more fearless, more carefree self.
Regrets? Kate has more than a few. Society wants her to be an inspirational figure. Inspirations are, after all, a lot easier to deal with than people who are still suffering and irrevocably changed by their pain.
Then again, perhaps Kate’s pain has made her stronger. Because despite society’s expectations, she’s strong enough to admit she hasn’t mastered her pain or made the most of her suffering. And she certainly won’t succumb to the pressure to be an inspiration.
Superficial concerns and why they matter.
Kate’s cancer diagnosis brought her to the brink of death, and at the last minute, she was granted a miraculous reprieve. Does that mean she experiences life with a new clarity, focusing only on things that are truly meaningful and authentic?
Yes . . . and no.
Yes, the sweet moments she spends eating pancakes with her son or hiking with friends in the forests of North Carolina seem all the sweeter. Yes, she’s realized that trying to optimize her productivity or control her life through a series of carefully curated decisions is, in the end, all a bit futile.
But she’s also spending a lot of time worrying about one of the most “superficial” things someone – particularly a woman of a certain age – can worry about: the way she looks in the mirror.
Cancer has changed Kate’s relationship with her physical form. Her body, from her clavicle to her abdomen, bears multiple scars, a flesh-and-blood testament to her multiple surgeries. Every time she looks at her body in the mirror, she remembers how badly it failed her, how close it brought her to death.
Kate finds herself feeling disconnected from her body. She used to have the feeling that her body was her home. Now nothing, not meditation or breathing or affirmations, can restore the sense of wholeness she once felt in her body.
To complicate things further, she’s of a gender and at an age where society sees her body as a problem in need of a fix. Kate spent years fighting for the privilege of getting older, measuring her time in increments of months, weeks, days. Now she’s targeted with products designed to make her look like she isn’t the age she fought so hard to be. Things that firm and plump and erase. She finds it galling – but then again, perhaps it would be nice to look in the mirror and feel compelled to swipe on some lipstick or gently apply wrinkle cream around her eyes. It would be nice to care enough about her body to tend to it like this.
Kate has known for a long time that it could be worse. Being alive, if scarred, is the best-case scenario.
But now she finds the humility to admit it could be better, too: she could be unscarred, healthier, younger-looking. She could feel at home in herself. It’s a friend living with chronic pain who eventually reminds Kate that her body isn’t just a sack of meat. It isn’t shallow to try to feel good in your body.
Kate’s body turned against her, and then rescued her. It is marked. It is – miraculously! – aging. But she makes her peace with it: This is the same body that goes on hikes and makes pancakes with her son. And she’s allowed to care for it. Even if that includes caring about the way it looks in the mirror.
A collective lesson: pain and suffering in the age of COVID.
At the start of her cancer treatment, Kate signs herself up for a clinical trial. She, and others with her diagnosis, are offered an unproven, untested course of immunotherapy. The study might offer its participants a better chance of survival, but this comes at a cost. They may be denied other courses of treatment or be subjected to unnecessary risks. Some participants will form a control group of people who are not given the therapy at all.
Now, nearly five years after she began her participation in the trial, its results have been published. They are sent to Kate in the mail. The envelope feels heavy in her hands before she opens it. How many of her fellow participants have survived?
Not many. Some, like Kate, responded to the new treatment. Most are now dead.
Time and again throughout her treatment, Kate has seen that there is no formula for avoiding pain and mortality, much as we might like to think otherwise. But she’s never seen it so clearly as she does now.
Looking back on her time in the trial, Kate remembers how she drew comfort from its formulaic structure. There were schedules to adhere to, instructions to follow, drugs to be administered and ingested. This formula gave her a sense of control where there was none. No choices she made explained her luck.
Life is messy. Life is random. No matter how many lunchtime yoga classes we take, no matter how promptly we respond to our emails, life can be thrown off course by all kinds of events: cancer, a bear attack – or, as it happens, a global pandemic.
Just as Kate’s life finally looks like it might return to normal, everything changes. COVID-19 goes from a concerning news story to a full-fledged pandemic. Once again, Kate’s life is filled with uncertainty and anxiety about the future. Only this time, she’s not alone.
Kate watches as people around the world find their carefully curated and controlled lives upended by circumstances beyond their control. She sees how, for many, a latent pressure to live their best lives now bubbles to the surface. The threat of imminent death, in the shape of an airborne virus, sharply reminds us that our days on this earth are finite. Is that why so many of us look for a formula, resolving to write novels and bake sourdough and plant gardens while our lives are placed on indefinite pause?
But Instagram stories of sourdough starters aren’t much ballast against the waves of tragedy the pandemic brings: untimely deaths, lives placed on hold, businesses shuttered, best-laid plans left in tatters.
Perhaps, Kate thinks, as she notices the desire to “make the most of” the pandemic wear off and be replaced with sorrow and fatigue, we are all coming to a shared epiphany. We can’t avoid minor misfortunes, personal tragedies, or global catastrophes. They are, simply, part of life. It might not be your “best life.” Then again, it’s the best life that we have.
The key message in these summaries is that:
We’re bombarded by the idea that our perfect lives are within reach, if we would only try this productivity hack or embark on that juice cleanse. Most of us know, of course, that our lives aren’t one Instagram-influencer-backed exercise or cleanse away from perfection, yet we unconsciously subscribe to the idea that we can control our lives. We can’t. Not completely, anyway. It’s time to stop striving for a best life that doesn’t exist and time to simply start living.
And here’s some more actionable advice: Give up on gratitude
No, not like that – gratitude is one of the most joyous and humbling emotions you can experience, and you certainly shouldn’t edit it out of your life. But why not give up on the contemporary approach to gratitude that asks you to compile everything you have to be grateful for in life in gratitude lists and gratitude journals? Trying to quantify all the blessings you experience won’t multiply them. And feeling pressured to write them down will almost certainly diminish them. Our joys and blessings are complex. Why not appreciate them in their full, nuanced, fleeting glory instead of trying to distill them into a bullet point on a list?
About the author
Kate Bowler is a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University. She’s published scholarly works on evangelism and the self-help industry while also gaining a popular following for her life writing with the New York Times best-selling title Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) and her newest release No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear).
Table of Contents
- Author’s Note
- Chapter 1 Best Life Now
- Chapter 2 Timekeeping
- Chapter 3 Pragmatism
- Chapter 4 Bucket Lists
- Chapter 5 Yolo (You Only Live Once)
- Chapter 6 Do What You Love (and the Money Will Follow)
- Chapter 7 Apocalyptic Time
- Chapter 8 Befores & Afters
- Chapter 9 Flesh & Blood
- Chapter 10 Unfinished Cathedrals
“We all know, intellectually, that our time on earth is limited. What would we change if we knew it viscerally? Kate Bowler was thirty-five when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Now that she’s responded to immunotherapy Kate has to figure out how to make a new life between CT scans. Before she got sick, she’d accepted the very American idea that life was an endless horizon of possibilities. Now she has to figure out what to do within the limits of the time she has left. In No Cure for Being Human, Kate, hailed by Glennon Doyle as ‘the Christian Joan Didion,’ looks at the ways she has tried to wring meaning from her remaining time through anecdotes that range from the hilariously absurd–as when she attempts to rid the hospital gift shop of its copies of prosperity gospel guru Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now to the seriously painful. Breaking down time into efficient segments–‘gather round and watch how this woman can take a solitary moment and divide it into a million uses!’–trying to live in the moment, weighing the meaning of work, and learning to discover what ‘enough’ feels like, Kate asks one of the most fundamental questions of all: How do we create meaning in our lives as we race against the clock?” – Provided by publisher.
Read an Excerpt
Best Life Now
I was in bed in the surgical wing of Duke University Hospital when the doctor popped his head in the door and smiled apologetically before flicking on the fluorescent lights. It was 4:00 a.m., the end of my second night in the hospital, but no one in a hospital sleeps in the conventional sense. There are only intervals of sleep without rest, interrupted by unfamiliar voices.
What’s your date of birth? On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate your pain?
To this day, if you wake me up from a nap, I will immediately tell you my birthday.
I opened my eyes and saw a boyish face. The doctor wore a white coat too large for his frame and his eyes were bleary either from a day that had only begun or from a night that had gone on too long.
“Six, sixteen, 1980. June 16.”
“Right,” the doctor said, then paused. “So . . . you’re thirty-five.”
I nodded, and my eyes began to water. I brushed the tears away quickly. Not the right moment for that now, thank you.
“If you keep replenishing my fluids, I’ll just keep crying,” I explained. “Maybe keep me in a stage of light dehydration for the next few days.”
The doctor suppressed a laugh and began to riffle through my case history. “The patient has a history of abdominal pain after meals. Significant weight loss. Nausea and vomiting. No ultrasound evidence of gallstones or cholecystitis, but results of hepatobiliary scan led to a surgical consult to remove the patient’s gallbladder . . . then you got a CT scan.”
“No,” I corrected. “I yelled at a surgeon for the first time in my life and said that I was not leaving his office without a scan. Then they ordered a scan.”
This had been the biggest showdown of my life, the doleful surgeon with his arms folded and me loudly demanding some kind of treatment. It had been five months, and I had lost thirty pounds. I was doubled over with the pain. “I can’t bear this much longer,” I had said, again and again as doctors benignly shuffled me along.
The young doctor glanced up at me and then turned back to his notes.
“The scan revealed that the liver has multiple focal lesions; the largest are seen within the caudate and right hepatic lobe in addition to several scattered subcentimeter lesions, some are noted within the periphery of the liver and some are subcapsular. The large left transverse colon mass was what created the functional obstruction for you, hence the pain.” He looked up at me quickly. “And then there are local regional lymph nodes that are worrisome for early peritoneal carcinomatosis.”
The heart monitor beeped softly.
I cleared my throat nervously. “Um, so, this is my first real conversation since the diagnosis. I mean, I know I had surgery, obviously.”
Flustered, I tried to start again. “The day before yesterday, a doctor’s assistant called me on the phone at work to tell me that I had Stage Four cancer. But I don’t know what these terms mean except that it sounds like I am a spaghetti bowl of cancer. People keep saying ‘lesions,’ ” I said. “I haven’t had a chance to google it. What are lesions exactly?”
“Tumors. We’re talking about tumors.”
“Ohhhhh,” I said, embarrassed by another flood of tears. “Right. And are there more than four stages of cancer?”
“Okay, so I have the . . . most. The most cancer,” I finished lamely.
The doctor stood there for a minute, raking his hands through his hair, whatever plans he had for this conversation deteriorating. He lowered himself onto the chair beside the bed but remained bolt upright as if to remind us both that he could leave at any time. The room was warm and stale. A silence folded over us, giving me a moment to look at him more carefully now, his mussy hair and anxious expression, wrinkled coat and brand-new sneakers. He is too young for this. God, we are both too young for this.
“I’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind.”
“By all means.”
“I’d like to know what my odds are. Of living. I’d like to know if I will live. No one has mentioned that.” I kept my voice invitational. I will not shoot this messenger. This is a friendly exchange between interested peers.
He paused. “I only know how to answer that by telling you the median survival rate for people who share your diagnosis.”
“Based on the information we have about people with Stage Four colon cancer, the survival rate is fourteen percent,” he said and began to scan the room as if looking for a window to climb out of.
“A fourteen percent chance of survival,” I repeated in a neutral voice. My head felt suddenly heavy as if I were pushing the words up a steep hill. Fourteen percent. Fourteen percent. We lapsed into another silence. The doctor shifted in his seat. He rose to leave, but I reached out, abruptly, to stop him.
“Hey!” I said too loudly. “I mean, hey.”
Startled, he looked down. My hand was closed tightly around his arm like a collar.
“It’s just . . .” I started again. “You’d better be holding my hand if you’re going to say stuff like that.”
He sat back down and carefully took my hand. I closed my eyes and thought of the last time I was here, in this hospital, holding someone’s reluctant hand. It was a maternity nurse. And I could not be reasoned with. “Short inhale! Long exhale!” she had shouted. “Are you laughing or yelling?” A bit of both. But I was waiting for something absolutely wonderful to happen.
I opened my eyes.
“Okay.” I said, letting him go. He stood to leave. “Wait! Wait. Before you go. What does survival mean in this context?”
He paused, his expression softening.
“Two years,” he said.
I don’t know what he saw, but he took my hand again.
“Okay,” I said at last. “Okay then.” Because I was counting.
Two years. 730 days.
This new definition of living is glued together by a series of numbers. I would be thirty-seven years old. I would celebrate my fifteen-year wedding anniversary. Zach would turn three.
I rummage around the things that the nurses had left within reach—a styrofoam cup of apple juice, peanut butter crackers, an untouched bowl of Jell-o cubes—until yes, there. My phone. I pull up the calendar and the calculator for some quick math: two Christmases, two summers, and 104 Thursdays.
I sink back into the bed with a long exhale. That is not enough time to do anything that matters. Only small terrible choices now.
Just then, Toban tiptoes into my hospital room holding a coffee so protectively that I already know the kind of night he has endured. I stuff the phone under my blankets and smile. Seeing me awake, he smiles back, a little nervously. A newly forming habit.
“Did I miss anything?” he asks, coming around to the side of my bed to press his cool palm against my sticky forehead. He frowns.
“No,” I reply quickly. “There’s nothing definite, I mean.”
He settles into the chair and leans back, closing his eyes. I study him for a long moment. My husband has only ever had three facial expressions on his stupidly handsome face: brooding, sleepy, and what I call “trampoline face” which is the self-satisfied look of a grown man about to do a flip on a trampoline and hoping everyone will stop what they’re doing to applaud. But now I can see we’re adding another.
“With grace, wisdom, and humor, Kate Bowler encourages us to cut back on self-help Kool-Aid and teaches us what it means to be human.” — Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again
“Kate Bowler has paid through the nose to become a writer of uncommon spiritual wisdom, coupled with an amazing sense of humor and a heart full of love. She fills me with hope.” — Anne Lamott, New York Times bestselling author of Dusk, Light, Dawn
“Kate Bowler refuses to jump on the bandwagon of toxic positivity. Instead, she leads us to a truer truth: The work is unfinishable, and so be it.” — Kelly Corrigan, New York Times bestselling author, host of the podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders and PBS’s Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan
“Kate Bowler is the rare author who can explore difficult subjects with both breathtaking honesty and lightheartedness. She brings profound insight and love to the human experience.” — Gretchen Rubin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project
“In a culture that asks us to constantly strive and improve, Kate Bowler recognizes that our own pain is neither an aberration nor an opportunity but a fact of life. There is nobody on earth who sees our humanity quite like Kate Bowler.” — Nora McInerny, creator and host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking
“Those in need of a wake-up call will find it in this breathtaking narrative. . . . Bowler’s strong faith is present throughout, though the writing, refreshingly, never feels overtly religious. . . . Her convictions underscore the importance of living life on one’s own terms.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“With hilarity and courage, Bowler tells the story of being diagnosed with stage-four cancer at age thirty-five, which forced her to re-examine the way she (and we) live our lives. This is a brilliant examination of what happens when everything you assumed is suddenly in question.” — Lori Gottlieb, bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
Bowler led a charmed life–a tenure track job at Duke University, nearly perfect marriage, and baby son–until she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Her first memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018), dealt with the reckoning with possible death and with the saccharine platitudes that people offer. Her scholarly work on the prosperity gospel infuses the pages of this second memoir. What does it mean to “live your best life” when death seems all too close? Bowler observes that bucket lists have become a “new form of experiential capitalism” and ultimately a death-avoidant strategy. As she recounts the labyrinthine road of treatments and surgery, she finds love and joy everywhere, even as despair is never more than a hair’s breadth away. Bowler’s prose is adept at capturing the dialectic of life’s “splendid, ragged edges” showing through. And she’s funny, too. This is a gem for cancer patients and their families and for survivors, but really, for anyone who understands the terror and beauty of being human. – Booklist Review
In heartbreaking essays, Bowler (Everything Happens for a Reason) recounts lessons learned after being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at the age of 35. An associate professor at Duke Divinity School, she thought that everyone had limitless choices before receiving the grim diagnosis that pegged her survival odds at 14%: “Hope for the future feels like a kind of arsenic that needs to be carefully administered, or it can poison the sacred work of living in the present.” While mourning the loss of a future with her husband and two-year-old son, Bowler enrolled in a clinical trial for a new immunotherapy drug, and, miraculously, was one of 3% of patients to successfully respond to it. After searching her whole life for a “formula for how to live,” she writes, “cancer treatment had provided the clearest one of all.” Bowler’s strong faith is present throughout, though the writing, refreshingly, never feels overtly religious. More than anything, her convictions underscore the importance of living life on one’s own terms. “Someday… God will draw us into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering,” she writes. “In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude.” Those in need of a wake-up call will find it in this breathtaking narrative. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Co. (Sept.) – Publisher’s Weekly Review
In this memoir, Bowler (history of Christianity, Duke Divinity Sch.; Everything Happens for a Reason) talks about receiving a diagnosis of stage-four colon cancer; this begins a series of reflections on the evolution of Bowler’s illness and her emotional journey through the ups and downs of responding to cancer. Bowler’s affecting narrative meditates on the things she’s just faced; she also takes it as an opportunity to reflect on the past and the kind of life she wants for herself in the future. Bowler writes about all of it with good humor, occasional anger, and vivid honesty, when she’s discussing remission, the toll of the cancer cure, and the incredible hassle of getting a disability parking permit from Duke because her physician didn’t properly write the request. Most poignantly, she talks about dealing with oncologists who aren’t straightforward with her about her diagnosis. Through it all, she survives, offering along the way fresh insight on life and chronic illness. VERDICT General readers will be engrossed by this heartfelt memoir of sickness, family, and recovery. The table that serves as an appendix of complicated truths is worth the price of the book. – David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia. (Library Journal Review)
APA Citation, 7th Edition (style guide)
Bowler, K. (2021). No cure for being human: (and other truths I need to hear) (First edition.). Random House.
Chicago / Turabian – Author Date Citation, 17th Edition (style guide)
Bowler, Kate. 2021. No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear). New York: Random House.
Chicago / Turabian – Humanities (Notes and Bibliography) Citation, 17th Edition (style guide)
Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) New York: Random House, 2021.
MLA Citation, 9th Edition (style guide)
Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human: (and Other Truths I Need to Hear) First edition., Random House, 2021.
Religion, Spirituality, Biography, Autobiography, Memoir, Inspiration, Motivation, Personal Growth, Non-fiction, Self Help, Faith, Christian, Personal Memoirs, Christian Living, Motivational, Inspirational, Health, Cancer, Patients, Family relationships, Diseases