Maintaining a sense of humor when discussing a topic that is anything but funny is no small feat, but Peta Ann-Wood manages to do just that with WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THEY DON’T GROW BACK: The Upside Down View of Life After a Bilateral Mastectomy. From the title alone, one might assume that Wood’s novel is a harrowing account of one woman’s battle with breast-cancer. Yes, Wood is a breast-cancer survivor, but her latest novel is so much more than a survivor’s story. In fact, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THEY DON’T GROW BACK is less about the big ‘C’ and more about redefining ‘normal’ in the wake of a life-altering situation.
Any way you slice it, the statistics are sobering: women now have a one in eight chance of receiving a breast cancer diagnosis (according to breastcancer.org) and the disease now stands as the most common cancer worldwide. In that regard, Peta-Ann Wood’s initial diagnosis at the age of forty-five (and subsequent emotional fallout) is a tragically common tale as was the double-mastectomy that followed. Where Wood’s recovery deviated from the established norm, however, was with her decision to avoid reconstructive surgery. Normally, patients are approved for reconstruction following the removal of their breasts, a course of action that Wood found herself questioning. Based on mass-media’s preoccupation with breasts, doctors often rush to offer patients reconstructive surgery or a prosthesis. Of course, there exists a third option: “stay-flat.” According to Wood, this means “no prosthesis, no reconstruction, and very concave ribs, or divots, if you will.” After weighing all of the facts, this is the option Wood chose. From there, Wood spends much of her novel redefining the idea of what constitutes ‘normal’ by retracing her steps through one traumatic moment after another.
From a writing standpoint, Ann-Wood recounts her tale with unflinching honesty. Rather than lean on flowery language or heavy-handed metaphors, she opts for a conversational, matter-of-fact tone. The result is a novel that reads less like a sterilized infomercial and more like a long-form letter/email/blog from a dear friend. Along the way, the author uncovers several tomes of hard-earned wisdom (“never presume you know how someone else will respond or that they will think the same way as you”). Yes, there are a handful of grammatical and formatting issues (such as an abundance of sentence fragments), but these often feel less like an editorial oversight and more like an artistic choice.
There’s a massive takeaway here, and it has little do with breasts and everything to do with self-empowerment. With a diagnosis occurring every two minutes, breast-cancer survivors and their families will surely identify with Wood’s story. Still, the themes of personal empowerment and self-advocacy will benefit readers from all walks of life, regardless of whether or not they have a personal connection to breast cancer.
Tackling a heavy topic with a lighthearted, conversational tone, Peta Ann-Wood’s WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THEY DON’T GROW BACK is a powerful biography that educates, inspires, and challenges deep-rooted perceptions.
~James Weiskittel for IndieReader