For some years now I have volunteered as a befriender with three charities (the Eric Liddell Centre and Vintage Vibes, both based in Edinburgh, and Independent Age UK), all of which do incredible work to help support older people who are lonely and/or housebound, and people who have caring responsibilities. Through these initiatives, I have been privileged to meet many wonderful people, including Heather Goodare, who in her eighties has just published her latest book, Foiled Creative Fire: A study of remarkable women with breast cancer.
Heather has herself defied the cancer odds. She had breast cancer 33 years ago and did not have a good prognosis, but gained complementary support from the Bristol Cancer Help Centre (now Penny Brohn UK). Since then, she has devoted her life to making sure that the voices of other women with breast cancer in particular, and patients in general, can be heard at the highest levels. She was the first patient representative on the British Medical Journal Editorial Board. She has written and peer-reviewed for medical and psychological books and journals, and has written many articles on the patient’s perspective in research, contributing significantly to the development of the Patient and Public Involvement initiative.
Turning to the book itself, I must first declare an interest: I had the great pleasure of proof-reading and commenting on most of the chapters while they were still in draft. Heather presents twelve short yet meticulously researched biographies of famous and accomplished women who died of breast cancer. From Anne of Austria, Queen of France (1601-1666) to Audre Lorde (1934-1992), Heather explores the life of each woman through the wide lens of the times in which they lived. Reading the completed book, I found it to be even more powerful than looking individually at the early drafts. Each essay is fascinating in itself. But taken as a whole, the set of case studies together present a powerful argument for the role of stress, anxiety and depression to be considered as a strong factor in the development of cancers and other conditions, particularly in women. Heather’s work also illuminates the collective problem faced by women, historic and modern, in the fight against the pressures and expectations of a patriarchal society.
Overall, this is a slim volume which punches well above its weight. It will of course be of interest to anyone who has experienced cancer directly or indirectly. It also provides a unique contribution to our understanding of the history of feminism. Above all, it is a fitting tribute to this collection of amazing women and their achievements.