‘There Were Still Choices I Could Make’
Alice Hoffman’s breast cancer memoir is really a guide for going through difficult times.
Jewish Week Book Critic
"I could not run away from my circumstances, or control the path of my disease," Hoffman says. Photo courtesy Algonquin
"I could not run away from my circumstances, or control the path of my disease," Hoffman says. Photo courtesy Algonquin

Being a caregiver came much more naturally to Alice Hoffman than being cared for. For decades, the bestselling novelist was the one who took friends and relatives to the doctor, sat at bedsides, thoroughly researched diseases and arranged for cemetery plots and funerals. Fifteen years ago, when she found a lump on her breast, she was certain that she only imagined it, as things like that didn’t happen to her, and she didn’t have time to be ill. But a call from her doctor, “Alice, I’m sorry,” brought the stark truth.

“Good fortune and luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread,” she writes in her new book, “Survival Lessons” (Algonquin). “It happens to everyone, in one way or another, sooner or later. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, heartbreak, a child set on the wrong path, a bad diagnosis. When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.”

This is Hoffman’s first work of nonfiction, after 21 novels (including “The Drowning Season” and “Practical Magic”), eight children’s books and three short story collections over a period of 40 years. She hadn’t really considered writing nonfiction until she couldn’t find the book she really wanted to read about having breast cancer. So like many writers, she was driven to write the book she wanted to read.     

“In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss,” she writes. “I wrote to remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the stars still come out at night. And to remind myself that, despite everything that was happening to me, there were still choices I could make.”

Those choices — to which she devotes brief chapters, filled with personal history, insight and practical advice — include choosing one’s heroes, friends, advice givers, how to spend time, to accept sorrow, to dream, to enjoy oneself, to make things beautiful and to claim one’s past. These are themes she has thought about a lot before sitting down to write — the things she “wished someone had told me at the time.”

Her tone is very warm, humble, sometimes funny, infused with a spirit of optimism. She admits that by nature, she’s not an optimist, but one can learn it.

“I felt like I was writing a letter to a friend,” Hoffman says in an interview with The Jewish Week.
While the book is informed by her experience with breast cancer, it’s really a guide for going through difficult times. As she urges readers to figure out what matters most, she helps us all to readjust our perspective.

“Survival Lessons” is artfully packaged in a small format. Photographs taken by Hoffman, printed in a single color, accompany many of the chapters, along with some historical photos of her first hero, Anne Frank, and relatives.

Cancer, for Hoffman, became a family affair, as she, a mother of two young sons, and her mother were diagnosed at around the same time. And also at the same time, her sister-in-law died of brain cancer. During her treatments, she read Viktor Frankel’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” as she wondered about how those who experienced the Shoah managed to survive, and about why awful things happen, something she still thinks a lot about.

Hoffman encourages readers to enjoy simple moments in their lives, and includes Julia Child’s recipe for perfectly boiling an egg, along with a friend’s recipe for not-to-be-missed brownies. She also urges readers to write about their experience and to practice forgiveness. “If you can forgive someone. … It will be like losing twenty pounds. Maybe even two hundred and twenty pounds.”

Hoffman explains that the experience of having breast cancer really changed her as a writer. “I am much more drawn to survival stories,” she says. Her last novel, “The Dovekeepers,” was set at Masada.

These days, she is drawn to stories about Jews and to telling stories about Jews, crediting the closeness she shared with her grandparents. She describes her grandmother Lillie, who worked as a volunteer in an old age home into her 80s, “who lost a husband and a child and still kept on going, one foot in front of the other, out of Russia, across the ocean, to a tenement in the Lower East Side of New York. “She ran her own sewing shop on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where she kept a hammer ready in the back in case of robbers. Lillie was Hoffman’s angel — she split her retirement check in order to help Hoffman become a writer. “Because of her,” she writes, “I know that if you are lucky enough to have one person believe in you, you have it made.”

Hoffman’s new novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things,” due out in February 2014, is about the immigrant experience in America and the labor movement in the early part of the century.  She learned more about that era through an extraordinary find: Her grandfather died young, and his friends put together a collection of his writing in a very small edition, and she found a copy online at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.

Her advance from “Survival Lessons” will be donated to the Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. She founded the center with a generous contribution following her diagnosis and treatment, out of a desire “to give something back.” Before that, the hospital, which is one of the teaching hospitals connected to Harvard, didn’t have a dedicated breast center. Here, the underlying idea is to treat the whole person, attending to all of the patient’s concerns and to afford the patient privacy. The Hoffman Breast Cancer Center is separate from the rest of the hospital. “No one is turned away,” she says.  For the last 15 years, she has done a lot of fundraising for the Center, including arranging for noted authors to speak on the Center’s behalf.

Near the end of the book, she quotes Elie Wiesel from “Night.” “There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. … Help one another. It’s the only way to survive.”

Choose to Accept Sorrow

An excerpt from “Survival Lessons” by Alice Hoffman.

During my radiation treatment I read “Man’s Search for Meaning.” People said, Isn’t that book depressing? But it wasn’t. It was honest. The author, Viktor Frankl, was a psychiatrist who lost nearly everyone he loved in the Holocaust. This fact already makes your problems feel small even if you are in the radiation waiting room. Frankl later developed a theory about tragedy and sorrow, that it is these experiences that make us human and define who we are.

I was looking for an answer in the waiting room. It was the beginning of my search for advice on how to survive. Here is the lesson I learned from Frankl about his time in a concentration camp, an explanation of how certain people were able to continue on despite extreme darkness:

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.

We are all responsible for our actions, and our reactions. We are responsible for how we respond to situations we cannot control. I could not run away from my circumstances, or control the path of my disease, but I could control what I did with my experience of that illness. I chose to become a fund-raiser for breast cancer. That was the right answer to my problem. As a matter of fact, I think it may be the rightest and best answer I’ve ever found. When you help others, your own troubles aren’t as heavy. In fact, you can fold them like a handkerchief and place them in your pocket. They’re still there, but they’re not the only thing you carry.

Reprinted with permission from Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill.