Picks and Pans Review: Exploding into Life

updated 07/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Dorothea Lynch
photographs by Eugene Richards

There has never been a book about breast cancer, or perhaps any cancer, quite like this one. It is harrowing. Yet it is not ghoulish. One morning in 1978 Dorothea Lynch, a 34-year-old reporter for the Quincy, Mass. Patriot Ledger, discovered in her left breast a hard lump "as big as a wad of bubble gum." In sensitive but unflinching language, she calmly describes the consequences of that discovery: the biopsy, her subsequent choice of mastectomy and chemotherapy over prolonged radiation, the procedures themselves and her slow recuperation. "Tonight I cannot sleep," she writes before the mastectomy. "I am obsessed with when that one different voracious cell in my breast first exploded into life. The books say tumors can grow for years before they are detectible to the touch. So I can't help wondering if it was already in place that night we skinny-dipped at Sunset Lake, or when I covered my first news story, or that summer I spent trying to run more than a mile." The reader feels deeply the capricious cruelty of the disease, the pain, the reduced existence of the hospital patient, the well-intentioned but pat, clumsy reassurances of doctors. Yet the effect of these pages is not demoralizing. Lynch likes the hospital at night: "Nurses and patients are like girls at a pajama party, chatting freely, laughing, exchanging life stories." She emerges from her ordeal energized and "never...so happy." When Lynch and Richards, her longtime friend and lover, begin to observe other cancer patients, however, the book falters. In her perfunctory portraits of other patients she gropes for meaning while her autobiographical flashbacks strain for poetic effects. She regains her direct touch at the end of the book as she battles the relapse that ultimately claimed her life. Tales like Lynch's have been told before, but seldom have they been accompanied by photographs as frank and intimate as Richards'. While his pictures parallel the text, they have a life of their own. His fluid sense of form helps him preserve his subject's dignity (even when he shows Lynch, devastated from vomiting, collapsed beside the toilet). Richards offers no sentimental escape hatch, no easy moral uplift. Clearly he suffered too. More than anything else, his pictures may be about the strength it takes to survive a profound loss. (Aperture, $18.95)

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