Book Review

‘Survival Lessons’ by Alice Hoffman

In her nonfiction debut, Alice Hoffman shares her strategies for coping with a breast cancer diagnosis.
In her nonfiction debut, Alice Hoffman shares her strategies for coping with a breast cancer diagnosis.DEBORAH FEINGOLD

“I was not someone who got cancer,” Alice Hoffman writes in her newest book and nonfiction debut. “In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctors’ appointments,” and so forth.

Cancer isn’t so discriminating, of course, and when a lump in Hoffman’s breast turned out to be malignant 15 years ago, the expert soother and hand-holder found herself upended. Worse yet, Hoffman, a prolific author herself, couldn’t find the guidebook she was looking for — “I needed to know how people survive trauma” — which is, in part, how she came to write “Survival Lessons” (the advance for which she donated to the Hoffman Breast Cancer Center at Mount Auburn Hospital).


It’s a slender book broken down into easily digestible bits — a few menu-centered chapters

nearly literally so — with titles encouraging action over passivity (“Choose Your Heroes,’’ “Choose to Enjoy Yourself,’’ “Choose to Plan for the Future’’). And it would be easy to dismiss as one of those fluffy daily meditation books.

This would be a mistake, for the most part. Yes, some of the book’s wisdom feels familiar, urging readers to pursue their dreams, cut their losses, heal old grudges, and focus on love. Her enthusiasms — brownies, knit goods, dogs — are hardly cutting-edge. And yet there’s toughness here, and a deliberate, bracing honesty, whether Hoffman is admitting to her own failings or pointing out that cancer rearranges one’s relationship to aging: “Getting old is starting to look good to you now.”

Many of her lessons come entwined with stories of her own life, including a childhood bruised by loss. After her father left the family, Hoffman writes, her mother took to bed, leaving the 8-year-old to clean the house and walk the dog. She found a place of peace and happiness when curled up with a book. “I read because I wanted to escape sadness,” she says, “which was a big theme in my family.”


This landscape — a place where happiness and sadness coexist, or refer to each other — is where most of Hoffman’s “lessons” take place. As she points out, “[g]ood fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread.”

Hoffman writes about the sustaining love of friends during her illness, but she doesn’t omit the wrenching fact that some friends let her down horribly. Still, this too was a lesson: “I was hurt. I felt abandoned. Looking back on it, I wish I had let them go more easily.”

Hoffman avoids many of the platitudes that cancer patients hear so frequently — she doesn’t mention divine plans or invoke the power of positive thinking. Instead, she counsels a pragmatic kind of mindfulness (one that includes plenty of room for napping, being irritated at loved ones, and vegging out to a good movie).

Her advice is always gentle, sometimes surprising. Even (perhaps especially) people who know they are dying should plan for the future as well as take stock of the past.

Most importantly, Hoffman advises, they should also try to do new things — why not tackle those tasks you once avoided, out of fear you would fail? Failure wouldn’t have mattered then, Hoffman implies, and it certainly doesn’t matter now.

As her legion of fans already knows, Hoffman is a writer of deceptive simplicity and unexpected boldness. Readers facing pain, uncertainty, and fear — whether caused by cancer or any other rotten piece of bad luck — deserve nothing less.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.