BY Regina Marler

October 27 2009 7:55 PM ET

I found it poignant that the nurses and technicians felt this urge
to connect with you, to look for commonality, but they couldn’t quite
find it with a lesbian. One woman tried to bond with you over your

That’s right! She really wanted me to come up with
some kind of heteronormative identity she could relate to. And she had
a checklist! Do you have kids? Do you have pets?
Everyone knows
that illness is isolating. That’s why there’s this emphasis on the
walks and the groups. There’s a profound solitude when you’re dealing
with harrowing procedures and your own mortality. I don’t think it’s a
bad thing. We all have to reckon with it as human beings. But it
doesn’t help when you’re already at a remove from the world by being
sick and that is doubled or tripled by other factors, like your

You describe some moments of connection or bridging with your fellow cancer patients.

When you’re in those waiting rooms, there’s definitely a falling away
of who you are. We don’t know anything about each other except that we
have cancer. This is what we have in common. It’s a kind of leveling
device. I don’t want to say that people’s prejudices and bigotry fall
away, because that would be to idealize these situations.

Tell me about the genesis of this book. It’s so strange that you were
researching collections at the Mutter Museum of medical curiosities
when you were diagnosed with cancer.

My mother lives near
the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, and I don’t know why I had never been
there. I rounded the corner and opened this set of drawers and there
was a collection of things people had swallowed or ingested. They were
all removed by a famous laryngologist, Chevalier Jackson. I started to
think there was a book to be written about that collection. I have a
fascination with this material. I think I’ve always been a frustrated
doctor, on some level.
Then I discovered an elderly woman named
Margaret Derryberry who called the Mutter Museum because she had
ingested a hat pin as a child. It had been removed at one of the
Jackson clinics, and she wanted to find it. Jackson always insisted on
keeping the objects, but people become attached to these objects! She
felt cut off from this traumatic experience. And she was coming to the
end of her life, and maybe this is something we want to do, to resolve
earlier problems.
She was thrilled that I was interested in her story. I interviewed her in May and got my diagnosis in June.
When I began treatment, I knew I had to move away from the Jackson
material temporarily, but the Jackson work helped me cope with the
total immersion in the medical world I had to embark on — from the
surgery to the port installation to the chemotherapy. I’m convinced
that because I was steeped in this work, it made it easier for me to
deal with the cancer. And then when I came back to the Jackson
material, I had a new and deeper appreciation for it.

- Called Back is in stores now from Alyson Books

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