IN Illness and Healing, Robert Pope chronicles his struggle with Hodgkin's disease in pictures and text. The book is a remarkable tour de force. The artwork is superb, ranging from stark black-and-white linedrawings to symbolically enlarged coloured self portraits, from first sketches to polished landscapes. The talent and skill is unquestionable. And yet, I felt cheated, as if I were asked to watch a movie on video when I would have preferred it on the big screen. The dimensions of the original artwork are described in the book. What greater impact the originals might have had! As for the text, Pope's grasp, insights, and breadth of understanding of all the clinical problems of treating Hodgkin's disease, from its inception to its resolution, is admirable.
It occurred to me as I went through this wonderful book that, had he wished, Robert Pope's evident empathy for human suffering would have made him a fine physician. I also thought how relatively fortunate this young man was. Although his clinical course was at times terrifying, he had a curable cancer. (Hodgkin's, lymphomas, certain childhood leukemias, and testicular cancers are considered to be curable cancers.) What kind of book, if any, might have been produced if Pope had had lung cancer or stomach cancer, or hadn't responded to therapy?
It is in the context of the overwhelming sadness of most cancers that I wish to sound a critical note. For me, the pictorial displays, although ripe with metaphor and symbolism, were overexplained textually and were too photographic and posed. In my experience, patients confront cancer with anger, anguish, blasphemy, paralysis, violence, chaos; that is, with more disorder than that displayed in this book. Perhaps the artist purposely muted his renditions, aware of the kind of responses engendered in the average person. But 1 Would have preferred that Pope use his considerable skills and his poetic licence to show more of the fierce cruelty of cancer, the sheer terror, the endless tears, and the total devastation and destruction of the human body. There are hints of this, as in the picture of Pope being transported home from the hospital after chemotherapy: his father drives as if frozen, his brother tries to give comfort, a kidney basin waits in place to catch the vomitus.
Illness and Healing is a pioneering book in beginning to see cancer - its treatment and effects - without flinching. It is a moving testimony to a brave, humane person's survival. But it is well to remember that Pope was statistically lucky - most cancer kills.