John Marshall and Liza Marshall are the authors of the new book Off Our Chests: A Candid Tour Through the World of Cancer. John Marshall is an oncologist a professor at Georgetown University. Liza Marshall, a former attorney, is a survivor of breast cancer and a founder of the group Hope Connections for Cancer Support. A husband-and-wife writing team, they live in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: What inspired the two of you to write this memoir, and how did you work together on it?
A: Actually, our inspiration came from one of our dear friends who also is a writer. The Arlington Magazine had done a story about us, specifically the juxtaposition of a wife with breast cancer and a husband who is an oncologist as well as the fact that we approached a somewhat grim situation with familial humor.
When our friend read the article, she said she thought there could be a book there in light of the fact that John had been quite publicly vocal about many issues in cancer care and healthcare in the United States.
When we first tried to write it though, our lives were too busy and we were unable to find the time. Writing a complete draft required John's taking a sabbatical and the magic of being in Oxford, England, for four blissfully quiet months.
We wrote completely separately, actually even in different locations, John in the college library and Liza in the flat. We did not share each other's drafts with the other until we were done. That initial review of each other’s feelings, some of which we had never told each other about, was a relatively intense moment for us both.
Once we returned to the States, our friend, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, helped us organize our chapters into a cohesive and, we hope, readable whole.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The book title is Liza’s inspiration. We felt it was perfectly appropriate, depicting the physical removal of Liza’s breasts off her chest, John's metaphysical need to get his feelings about our world of cancer medicine off his chest, and finally Liza and John’s revelations about their feelings at the time.
Q: As an oncologist and a cancer survivor, as well as husband and wife, what impact did writing the book have on you and on your relationship?
A: We wrote the book 15 years after the events depicted actually occurred. While the delay was mostly logistical, we have found that it was quite important for time to have passed for both of us to be secure in our relationship and to allow the feelings and reactions we had then to have had time to settle and distill.
The book project has definitely brought us closer together, from the four months in a small flat in England away from our usual daily demands to the ongoing work together on talks, interviews, and marketing. We are truly enjoying the entire process and having opportunities to replace some of our parallel activities with joint activities.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your experiences?
A: We expect different people and different audiences to take away different messages from the book.
On a superficial level, we hope readers will use our book to learn about what is to come and to navigate their own medical journeys or, for those already on the other side of cancer treatment, to find empathy for and even some humor in what they have endured.
By dissecting out the intertwined but different roles of patient, caregiver, and healthcare team members, we also hope that each will see the others for both their strengths and their vulnerabilities.
And we hope that the reader will extend forgiveness and grace when he or she encounters imperfections in others involved in the process.
Some may be interested in our commentary on U.S. healthcare, a reflection on perspective if one is considering overall policy.
Finally, we hope that our book will inspire discussions among those who read it to improve communication and understanding of one another.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Managing the pandemic, preparing for a much-delayed family wedding, figuring out what is next in our lives, dedicating time to our church, to a local organization that provides support for cancer patients and their caregivers, and for John, continuing his work at the cancer center.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We are very cognizant of the fact that we received outstanding medical care because of our backgrounds, from knowing many people in the cancer world to a job with excellent health insurance.
We also know that it would be impossible to extend that same level of care to everyone in the United States much less to everyone in the world.
However, we should strive to improve access and healthcare quality for all of our brothers and sisters around the world.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb