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From OR to PR: Publishing a funny cancer book

I needed to write a book, and had every opportunity an author would need to fail. As a professional artist and career cancer patient (breast and ovarian), I’d been on chemotherapy for 5 years, and spent most of my time in the hospital. I didn’t have a computer, fax, cell phone, or college degree. I just knew how to juggle multiple tumors, surgeries, chemotherapy, art galleries, portrait commissions, armies of medical staff, and enjoy life. People noticed and called for advice; doctors asked me to talk to patients, survivor groups invited me to visit, and my phone was constantly ringing with terrified patients on the other end of the line. I wanted to help everyone, but it was hard to get my message across in a phone conversation; they were looking for a silver bullet – I was trying to tell them about the pot of gold between their ears.

Sitting at my easel, painting a commission for an art gallery that knew nothing of my medical challenges (I was a member of “cancer anonymous”), my brain visualized the chapters of a chemo-survival book. This would not be another “pink and blue” cancer book; in order to truly help people, it would be shameless, outrageously witty, power-packed with trench warfare wisdom, and just wicked enough to hold their attention without losing my dignity.

While recovering from another dastardly surgery and too weak to paint, I sat in my recliner with yellow pad, pencil, and eraser. In old-fashioned cut/paste tradition I wrote chapters and a friend typed them while I researched queries, agents, and publishers. The result of that information was more terrifying than the chemotherapy permeating my body, and statistics showed my 30% chance of survival was better odds than publishing this book! When you live every day in crisis mode, what’s one more statistic?

My manuscript needed professional help: How? Where? I mailed it to a recommended editor, and checked into the hospital for more slice and dice. Days later in my hospital room, I lay clutching a morphine button and nursing nine tubes snaking in and out of my body while my husband read the editor’s response; his overview was humorous and clever and he seemed perfect for the job. The editor suggested I would offend millions, but as an artist accustomed to nailing my guts on the wall for the world to critique, I was undaunted. I knew my audience.

His finished manuscript was a frustrating disappointment. I wanted this book to bounce and bubble like beer; his droll, long-winded version slid down like wine and put me to sleep. I kept searching for doctors – and editors. Responses from agents resembled my medical chart, with phrases like “questionable substance”, “no known cure”, and “do not resuscitate”. Confidence crisis was becoming a new medical term. Incredibly, I found a publisher in my city who had the professionalism, efficiency and expertise I needed. Time was of the essence, because a cancer magazine was planning a story on humor and would reference my book – if it was actually published.

Book-signing invitations were mailed, a caterer was hired, and I was in the publisher’s office, talking on the phone with the manager of the printing/binding company. It seems a machine had broken and on-time delivery was impossible. Chemo was the perfect preparation for writing a book; they both involve dizzying heights, depressing lows, and nerves of steel! Recalling a recent episode of “The Sopranos”, I suppressed a giggle and stated calmly, “My name is Di Giacomo, I know where you live; I have cancer, and I have nothing to lose. Will I have books in time for my party?”

“Yes, Mrs. Di Giacomo. You will have books.”

It’s been 15 years, and 24 visits to the operating table, but my book and I are alive and well! A multitude of readers, interviews, articles, and speaking engagements have rewarded my persistence. Sometimes our mountains seem too high to climb, and we give up on our dreams. Dare to dream – don’t give up your fairy tale!

Fran Di Giacomo is author of I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage:

Choosing Laughter Over Tears. Visit Fran at

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