I’m almost certain you’ve heard platitudes like “You only live once” or “You could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” And while these remarks may evoke an exaggerated eyeroll due to their common appropriation in justifying spontaneous purchases and questionable haircuts, they also remind us to enjoy living. Because despite its trials and minutiae, life is precious, and we have to take advantage of what little time we’re given. 

Nothing ignites our appreciation for life quite like looking death in the eye. For these seven writers, it was an earth-shattering cancer diagnosis that forced them each to contemplate life with the sobering realization that their time had been cut severely short. Their memoirs — some survival tales, some not — transform the bleakest of circumstances into honest, heartfelt meditations on life itself.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
by Kate Bowler

A Christian and a professor at Duke Divinity School, Kate Bowler believed in the prosperity gospel — that a person’s fortune is a blessing from God and any misfortune that befalls them is a result of God’s disapproval. At age 35, her life appeared to be full of blessings, but then she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Now, facing her own mortality in the wake of an illness she has no control over means reevaluating her long-held belief that “everything happens for a reason.” In a memoir that is unflinchingly honest, funny, dark and wise, Bowler explores the somewhat ironic but nevertheless revelatory experience of learning to live while dying. NYT bestselling author Glennon Doyle calls Bowler the “Christian Joan Didion.”

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When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi

36-year-old Paul Kalanithi was nearly finished with his neurosurgical residency when he found himself in a hospital room as someone needing treatment, rather than someone providing it, and receiving a devastating Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, follows Kalanithi as he journeys through his studies and transitions from doctor to patient all while grappling with poignant, hard-hitting questions about life, death and purpose. Although Kalanithi died in 2015 prior to the completion of the book, his words are unforgettable and, notes bestselling author Atul Gawande, “proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”

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Killer Graces
by Steve Melen

In 2008, Steve Melen had it all — a successful career, a nice house and a newborn daughter he and his wife adored. Eagerly preparing for the years ahead, a devastating Stage IIIB stomach cancer diagnosis left him facing a cruel 15 percent survival rate, which meant the odds were stacked against any future Steve had envisioned for himself. His memoir, Killer Graces, is more than just another cancer story. In the wake of major surgery — which would leave him without his stomach — and chemotherapy and radiation, Melen faces addiction to painkillers, followed by alcohol abuse and a crumbling marriage. Navigating these challenges will require Melen to both admit weakness and muster strength in order to break through. (Read our review here.)

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The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After
by JulieYip-Williams

Before the age of three, Julie Yip-Williams had already survived a death sentence given by her Chinese grandmother, who believed a blind child was a burden to the family, and escaped the political upheaval of late 1970s Vietnam. Fast-forward to 2013 and Yip-Williams is a 37-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer with a husband, two daughters and the most difficult years of her life seemingly behind her — that is, until she’s diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer. “They say that ‘youth is wasted on the young.’ Now, as I approach my final days,” writes Yip-Williams, “I realize that health is wasted on the healthy, and life is wasted on the living.” The Unwinding of the Miracle is a moving, compassionate and balanced account of hope and honesty in the face of death.

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Life is a Ride
by Chris Joseph

Chris Joseph was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer at 59, and after months of chemotherapy, which took its toll on both his body and spirit, he decided he had had enough. Joseph fired his oncologist and, with no concrete plan, set off on an alternative path to recovery. Leaving behind an indifferent team of healthcare professionals, he finds opportunities to improve not just his physical health but his spiritual health and the health of his relationships to others. Life is a Ride takes readers on this unconventional journey with him. An inspirational tale that Joseph courageously penned himself — in more ways than one — his “thorough introspection of his years in cancer treatment is a rewarding examination of love, duty, legacy, and mortality,” writes BookLife.

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Shrinkage: Manhood, Marriage, and the Tumor That Tried to Kill Me
by Bryan Bishop

Radio personality Bryan Bishop, known to millions as “Bald Bryan” of The Adam Carolla Show, was at the height of his career with a loving fiancée to boot when his doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor. Faced with grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Bishop found himself confronting his own mortality at age 30 instead of planning for the future. “Told in dude-style prose just waiting to be filmed by Judd Apatow” notes The Washington Post, “Bishop writes powerfully about the frightening reality of his disease.” Alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, Shrinkage chronicles his journey to a life-saving treatment, all the while emphasizing the power of laughter in times of strife.

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Cancer Vixen: A True Story
by Marisa Acocella Marchetto

“What happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds … a lump in her breast?” Well, if that cartoonist is Marisa Acocella Marchetto, she’ll chronicle her 11-month journey from diagnosis to remission with vivid, comic book-style in a graphic memoir that The New York Times Book Review calls “Ebullient . . . Visually invigorating and unflinching.” While Marchetto certainly doesn’t make light of her situation, her vivacious spirit and wit transform this tale of the Big-C into an authentic story of personal growth. A humorous account of survival, Cancer Vixen is an original (and colorful) approach to the cancer memoir, proving that laughter is some of the best medicine around.

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