Two Mass General Doctors Wrote a Complete Guide to Dealing with Cancer

It's modeled after What to Expect When You're Expecting.
Living with Cancer

Vicki Jackson and David Ryan/Photos provided

David Ryan and Vicki Jackson, both doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital, noticed a trend.

“I’d get these phone calls from all my friends and family saying, ‘Hey, would you talk to my friend or relative about their cancer diagnosis?'” Ryan says. “There’s not a week that goes by that you’re not on the phone a couple times talking to friends of friends about their cancer journey.”

Ryan, an oncologist, and Jackson, a palliative care physician, knew there had to be a better way. So with help from medical writer Michelle Seaton, they began piecing together a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to coping and living with cancer, modeled after the iconic pregnancy handbook What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Their finished work, called Living with Cancer, dropped earlier this month.

“People needed a guide to how to take care of their cancer that was practical and explained all the doctor speak in lay terms,” Ryan says. “Vicki and I always had a tendency to tell our patients stories—to say, ‘Well, I had a patient just like you.’ That technique we put into the book, and I think it allows us to explain the difficult medical situations in a much more friendly fashion.”

The book draws on both doctors’ perspectives, weaving tenants of palliative care—including symptom management, coping strategies, and emotion processing—into the narrative alongside primers on diagnoses, tests, and prognostics.

That mixture is important, Jackson says, because research—including some completed by the authors—has shown that palliative care can improve a cancer patient’s quality of life and even help him or her survive longer. The problem, however, is there aren’t enough palliative care doctors to go around.

“Palliative care is not available everywhere across the country and in every clinical setting,” Jackson says. “Our hope is that the principles in this book would serve patients and families well to be able to ask their clinical team questions, to advocate for themselves, to understand how the clinical team is thinking about the illness and the treatment program.”

The goal, the pair says, is for the book to do for cancer patients and their caregivers what What to Expect has done for soon-to-be mothers: demystify the process, and empower individuals going through a daunting life experience.

“You would have never asked for this to happen,” Jackson says of receiving a cancer diagnosis. “This is the reality, unfortunately, that is now part of life. How do we take that and live as fully and as well in the setting of this new reality as we can?”

For more information, or to purchase the book, click here.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Contributor jducharme@bostonmagazine.com