Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting

December 4, 2008
By Jessica Taylor, Burke, VA

Meredith Norton's memoir, Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, is not about cancer. As she told the Sunday Telegraph (Australia), the book is "about me when I had cancer." The word "cancer" typically conjures up images of bald children with IVs in their arms, nauseated and pale patients, pink ribbons, and a dark force of evil that spreads -- much like the scary oil spirit in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. Norton's book conveys a much different image of a cancer patient. While entertaining the reader with her lively story, Norton's observations are insightful. The memoir reflects her view that, as she told the Sunday Telegraph, "[t]aking yourself too seriously is stressful and taxing."

Although Norton's life is relatively ordinary, her perceptions are not. Her frequent "brain episodes" -- which are often random, but always funny -- delight the reader with musings on topics such as her former taxidermist neighbor and Lance Armstrong. Incidentally, she wanted to "poke a stick in Lance's spokes."

She avoids sentimental language or trying to sound noble and instead writes with clear, understandable diction that stays completely truthful to the reader. For example, at the beginning of the memoir, Norton, a thirty-four year old girl-woman, admits that she "had no career or plans for a career" and compares herself to "someone who's never taken life by the horns . . . someone like every character ever played by Bill Murray."

Shortly before Norton is diagnosed with breast cancer, she, her husband, and her son relocate to France. Because her son Lucas is under a year old, she is unsure whether her sensitive breast -- which is, to her, "like an unpredictable little alien I carried around" -- is a side effect of breast-feeding. Four French doctors, one of whom is a breast specialist, misdiagnose her and assure her that there is nothing wrong. Wanting to see a "real doctor" and to "remind [her] child that outside of northern Europe the sun radiates not just light but heat," she flies home to California to visit her family. In California she is diagnosed with breast cancer and informed she has only a 40% chance of survival.

As she discusses her treatment and the challenge of having cancer, she shares funny anecdotes from her past and describes what she was thinking as the events unfolded. While she is undergoing medical procedures and chemotherapy, Norton wonders whether she would survive "if the only food left on Earth was parsley". She similarly relates to the reader her experiences as a teacher, recalling the student to whose home she sent many "military boarding school applications." These anecdotes reveal facts about Norton's life and help the reader to understand her colorful personality.

In The Observer (England), Geraldine Bedell contends that Norton's "writing is determinedly wry and unsentimental, but real feeling seeps through." This is absolutely true of this memoir. Though Norton steers away from victim hood, she does not avoid the realities of cancer. When she first begins losing her hair, she keeps her writing free of self pity and says,

"I spent the rest of the evening trying to look seductive and batting my eyelashes at poor Thibault. I twisted my sixteen little hairs around my finger, winked provocatively and mouthed, 'Licky, licky.'"

After she loses the last of her hair, she acknowledges the gravity of the situation and gives into sadness. She writes,

"It wasn't funny at all. I kept touching my head, still sensitive and stinging from the razor, and wishing I could disappear. Not to be dead, but invisible. I was on the verge of tears for days."

Although the majority of the piece has a lighthearted and humorous tone, darker, heartbreaking subjects that are often the focus of cancer memoirs are present underneath the liveliness. The anecdotes she recounts are not only humorous, but they also reveal universal themes subtly, making this memoir comparable to a novel.

It becomes clear that one of Norton's largest fears is leaving her son motherless. While she considers making videotapes to remind him of her, she says,

". . . I was obsessed with the vision of myself rotting in the cold earth while Lucas watched a tape of me teaching him how to tie his shoes or drive a stick shift. These were things he'd probably never need in the Velcro-and-electric-car future that loomed ahead. I'd be hairless and dressed in the future's equivalent of a leisure suit, giving him advice that had probably long since been proven wrong. It would be like in Sleeper when the future doctor offers Woody Allen a cigarette and he declines, saying he doesn't smoke. The doctor replies, 'But why? It's the best thing for you!' I'd be telling Lucas to wear sunscreen or not eat too much bacon and look like an ignoramus. Instead of his not recollecting me at all, he'd remember me as an unstylish source of misinformation."

Although Norton keeps her writing cheerful, she touches on a very poignant topic. Not everyone may be afraid of death, but no one wants to leave behind their loved ones. The fear of leaving a child and the uncertainty about how to deal with this type of situation is relatable. It is this feature of the memoir that separates it from a purely comical book. This memoir is more than just a comedy and it is more than a hackneyed cancer memoir. It is an honest story from the vantage point of a sarcastic, funny woman.

Lopsided is a witty and candid look at a peculiar black woman who has cancer rather than a sappy story of the cancer victim who could. The piece is fun, feisty, and sure to attract readers. This book is written for a general audience ranging from young adult to mature readers, but may be somewhat offensive to reserved audiences. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good laugh and a book that's hard to put down. Hopefully, Norton will publish many other plucky, clever books in the future.

Works Cited

Lovell, Dale, ed. "Surviving Breast Cancer." Keep the Doctor Away. 2008. UK Association of Online Publishers. 27 Oct. 2008 .

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