December 4, 2020

IM Book Review: What I Learned from Cancer

wilfcWhat I Learned from Cancer
By Dennis Maione
Prompters to Life / Winnipeg (September 19, 2014)

• • •

I very much doubt that the author of “What I Learned from Cancer”, Dennis Maione, remembers this, but we shared a house for six weeks. It was actually Dennis’ roommate Bazyl that I met first. In September of 1990 I was newly married and had just moved half way across Canada to go attend Seminary in Regina, Saskatchewan. The house that we were going to rent wasn’t available, so we moved in with friends in an upstairs apartment. The morning after our move it was a beautiful fall day and so we decided to have breakfast out on the back patio. I glanced over at the downstairs window and had quite a start when I saw Bazyl standing there staring at me. When he stuck out his tongue at me, I jumped with surprise. You see, what I thought was a stuffed toy dragon was in fact a five foot long iguana! Dennis, as I learned from this book, had purchased Bazyl as a consolation for a cancelled Sting concert some years earlier.

DennisI soon learned that Bazyl was not the most interesting inhabitant of the household, that honor had to go to Dennis. Personality wise he was charismatic, brash, and intelligent. What stood out to me the most (besides his flowing mane) was the fact that he was the one who would be asking the difficult questions and would not settle for the pat answers. When diagnosed with cancer for the first time just a year after we met, it would be these characteristics that would help Dennis avoid a much worse outcome.

The first half of the book is Dennis’ story. It is a rather poignant tale of his two battles with cancer fifteen years apart. For such a difficult subject it is an engrossing story. Dennis is articulate and honest. Some Doctors failed him and Dennis does not hold back the criticism. Others were wonderful and Dennis is effusive. A friend once commented to me that he didn’t want to be known as a Christian musician, but rather a Musician who was a christian. I get the same sense from Dennis’ book, he writes in a way that in meaningful to all, but strands of his faith are woven throughout. The importance of community comes through again and again.

The second part of the book is a series of essays on lessons learned from Cancer. Along with the essay on community, I was also struck by “A Tale of Two Doctors:A Message
to Health Care Providers.”

Treat me as an intelligent person and engage me with respect as I struggle with the choices that you put before me.
An oncologist told me that I needed chemotherapy. When I replied, not with the expected gratitude and compliance, but with earnest, respectful questions arising out of documents and peer-reviewed articles (from the New England Journal of Medicine among others, no less), along with a request to be heard and have my questions engaged, I was met with, “Not clinically relevant,” and “What is the point?” When I asked where the centres of excellence were for my disease, he did not know. When I found one next door in Ontario, he dismissed their research. He told me that if I started chemo and then stopped, I would not be able to start again, presumably a tactic designed to convince me his was the best route to take. After all, he was the

Dennis2bThe third section of the book is an imagined series of conversations between Dennis and a Doctor which lays out in layman’s terms an introduction to the topic of cancer. It gets into the genetics of Dennis’ cancer in terms that even I could understand! For those Canadian’s among us, this third sections reminded me of the best seller “The Wealthy Barber”, with the topic of course being cancer rather than investing.

Cancer can take many forms. For Michael Spencer, the founder of Internet Monk, it was six agonizing months followed by his death. For my Father-in-law it was three pain free months before he quietly slipped away. For Dennis is was two major surgeries and a life of uncertainty. While the book is finished, Dennis’ story is not yet over. We read in the book that Dennis discovered that he is genetically predisposed to cancer and may contract it again. This cancer gene been passed on to one of his three children.

“What I Learned from Cancer” is not a “What to Expect When You Are Expecting” kind of book. It is however a honest and well written accounting of the fears and struggles that one goes through when faced with a diagnosis like cancer, along with some valuable lessons that are widely applicable. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a friend or loved one who is going through a significant illness or who is facing a difficult diagnosis. Quite frankly it is a book that every oncologist should read.

Dennis has provided us with a sample of the book and is generously offering Internet Monk readers a 25% discount by ordering and using the code AdvIM.


  1. What I learned from Upper Motor Neuron Disease:

    There is a real, continuous personhood to me that exists despite my physical condition. (This is true of mental condition too, but UMNDs didn’t teach me that!)

    Doctors are specialist consultants, not authorities. They never see the day in and day out results of living with their advice. Find one that understands that and hold onto them like the treasure they are.

    Who my friends are!

    Do what you can when you can, and don’t spend too much angst on worrying about all the things you couldn’t do. Also, looking at the future too much robs you of your ability to live the present.

    Budget like you’ll live forever, savor the experience of life as if it were your last day.

    Jesus truly is the “light of evening”, and no matter how far you go, he’ll be there with you.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Wow, you hit on subject of interest for me Michael Bell. It’s hard to know just where to start. However just know that one day everything in life is one way, and the next everything is another way.

    Late in 1999 I was diagnosed as having Colon Cancer. Actually it was Rectal Cancer, but I always told everyone it was colon, because when I said the other I could see the questioning eyes and faces. After the diagnoses, my first reaction was sort of a numb dumbness. Part of it was because I was still under the influence of the colonoscopy drugs, so I remember saying some rather silly things in response to the serious physician who gave me the bad news. He immediately found a surgeon for me to see and made an appointment.

    Not to go into details, but the days leading up to the diagnoses had been hell on earth in trying to see doctors, get opinions, and being sick.

    To shorten this, I will just say that I had a continuous chemo drip and radiation treatment for about six weeks leading up to the surgery. Going to a treatment center Is an eye opening experience. One meets others in every stage of disease. The age range is everywhere, from small children to old worn out adults. Most meet the disease with some sense of optimism. Or perhaps the better word is hope.

    I was lucky in that my doctors were good ones who listened closely, answered questions, and did their best. The surgery lasted many hours, but was successful. I was repaired back to full function. However one of my lymph nodes tested positive, so I had to endure six months of off and on chemotherapy. Part of it I did after returning to work. This was the hardest part of the entire ordeal. The chemo would last a week. Toward the second day I would become so tired I could hardly move, let alone work with intelligence. I made a serious error in my work that had half the company miffed at me for days. I worked on a weekend to correct it. So much for rest.

    The lessons, if one can call them that, are many. Life is short. Loved ones are precious. God still cares for us and His grace is sufficient. Sickness and evil are part of our “condition.” Some day deliverance will come and our tears will be wiped away. This sounds simple, but believe me, it is not. Prayers I learned as a child became important again. Hymns we sang in church flooded into my thinking as I drove to treatment. I would, in my mind, almost revisit the Sunday morning liturgy of church I grew up in. When I could not sleep at night, it was the same story.

    During my treatment and many years afterward I followed every bit of news I could find about colon-rectal cancer. I subscribed to a Medpage Today online newsletter and learned everything I could about this specific disease, treatments, drugs, and research. Then I could ask relevant questions that made sense.

    It is difficult to believe that fifteen years have passed. These are new years that I might not have had. A great and wonderful gift.

    • Thank you, David. I always appreciate what you write at iMonk, and am glad the Lord has given you more time to be with your loved ones.


    • David Cornwell says

      Seeing that Dennis Maione also had the same type of cancer. after reading the sample, I ordered the book. It is genetic in my family also. My father had it back about 1948. I was nine years of age. One of his best friends was a Mayo trained surgeon (which was a big thing back then). His cancer was pretty far advanced, but ignoring the advice of other doctors, the surgeon did the operation anyway. He survived, healed, and it never returned. I’m not sure of the history of chemo or radiation, but neither was offered to him. His younger brother died of the same kind of cancer in the 1990’s. So– getting tested is a must for those in my family.

      I am not sure about the experience of others, but the effects of chemo and/or radiation on the body can be lasting. About a year after my treatments all my teeth began to go bad and had to be pulled (had it all done in one day). I also developed spinal stenosis, which I believe was either caused or aggravated by the treatments. None of this can be proven, but not one doctor has denied the possibility, and most support my theory.

  3. Amazing timing. Four years ago this evening I was privileged to sit beside my brother as he passed away from throat cancer. I’m still processing the things I learned from walking beside him on his journey.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  4. When I saw the title of this post, my mind immediately went to John Piper’s ‘Don’t Waste Your Cancer’ and the disastrous role it played in Eagle’s story. This book sounds like a different beast, though. Not having read either book, I can’t make a conclusive judgement, but it seems Dennis Maione’s book is more descriptive, whereas Piper’s is prescriptive; ‘Here’s what I learnt’ rather than ‘Here’s what you should learn’.

    • Trust me, Eagle’s response to Piper’s book was on my mind the whole time I was reading this book. I would agree that Dennis’ story is much more descriptive. I read it as something that could be a help to someone who is going through a similar experience. Dennis is anything but a “Pat Answer” kind of guy.