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The Undying

Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care

By Anne Boyer
12-minute read
Audio available
The Undying by Anne Boyer

The Undying (2019) is a searing, poetic account of the author’s journey through an aggressive form of breast cancer. It’s also a seething appraisal of women’s experience of this illness, in history and literature, as well as in the present-day United States. 

  • Anyone who has ever suffered illness – from a common cold to cancer
  • People interested in class politics 
  • Lovers of great literature

Anne Boyer is poet and essayist and a self-described “common type of person.” She is a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

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The Undying

Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care

By Anne Boyer
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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The Undying by Anne Boyer
Synopsis

The Undying (2019) is a searing, poetic account of the author’s journey through an aggressive form of breast cancer. It’s also a seething appraisal of women’s experience of this illness, in history and literature, as well as in the present-day United States. 

Key idea 1 of 7

Anne’s diagnosis was very hard for her to process. She felt fine – but medical science was telling her she was seriously sick.

Anne was wearing her usual summer outfit: cutoffs, a green tank top, sandals. She sat in a climate-controlled room, across a desk from a woman dressed in official, dour gray. The woman’s job? An investigator. But not the sort you see in police thrillers. 

She was there to help Anne investigate her feelings. 

Sometime earlier, Anne had found a lump in her left breast. A medical investigation confirmed: she had a tumor. A technician showed her an image of this new growth inside her body, and Anne photographed it: a round object, with a long, jagged pointing finger. 

The key message here is: Anne’s diagnosis was very hard for her to process. She felt fine – but medical science was telling her she was seriously sick.

Before Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had never really thought about it. She’d read that the treatment had advanced and was relatively easy. People’s lives were interrupted, sure, but most got through it. 

But her tumor was different. Anne had triple-negative breast cancer, the deadliest kind. There is no targeted treatment for it. 

A picture Anne found online helped her process the news visually. The graphic was simple: just a hundred face emojis. Fifty-two were green and smiley, showing women who lived. And 48 were pink and frowning. They represented people who didn’t.

Anne and her friends had a nickname for her oncologist. They called him Dr. Baby because he looked so much like a chubby angelic child. But the news he gave Anne was terrifying. The rate at which her tumor was growing was four times higher than the speed that doctors describe as very aggressive. Dr. Baby recommended immediate chemotherapy. To refuse, he said, was to die. And to accept – Anne thought – was probably to feel like death but possibly live. 

She went on the Internet – and found plenty of strong opinions there. People suggested she should tell her mother, tell her daughter, and negotiate with her employer. She was also supposed to deep-clean the kitchen, find someone to look after her cat, and buy clothes that would accommodate the coming chemotherapy port in her chest: an opening through which drugs could be delivered directly into her bloodstream. 

Chemotherapy was still some weeks away for Anne. But as she waited, her tumor started to hurt. Her surgeon said the reason was simple: it was growing.

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