The best books about having cancer

Who am I?

I am an expert on being a cancer patient because I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2017. I am also a former oncology and hospice nurse. A cancer diagnosis always feels like a calamity and my work with very sick cancer patients showed me how serious the disease can be. I also thought that our health care system would react to cancer with compassion, but I was wrong. I felt on my own as a patient, and that experience led me to reflect on my nursing work. Healing alternates between me being a nurse and a patient. The alteration shows the failings of our health care system, and how to make it more caring.


I wrote...

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient

By Theresa Brown,

Book cover of Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient

What is my book about?

When an oncology nurse is diagnosed with cancer, she has to confront the most critical, terrified, and angry patient she’s ever encountered: herself.

New York Times bestselling author Theresa Brown tells a poignant, powerful, and intensely personal story about breast cancer in Healing. She brings us along with her from the mammogram that would change her life through her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Despite her training and years of experience as an oncology and hospice nurse, she finds herself continually surprised by the lack of compassion in the medical maze—just as so many of us have. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care

By Anne Boyer,

Book cover of The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care

Why this book?

I found The Undying Project beautiful and bracing. Like me, the author of this book had breast cancer. Unlike me, she had an aggressive cancer that is difficult to treat and often deadly. Her fear and struggle get transformed into blocks of prose that loosely tell the story of her treatment, but also discuss more philosophical writing on suffering and its meanings. At times I found the book hard to take, but I am so glad I read it because it gave cancer a personal and intellectual context; I hadn’t realized I needed that. The Undying won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. 

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care

By Anne Boyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Undying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2020 PULITZER PRIZE IN GENERAL NONFICTION

"The Undying is a startling, urgent intervention in our discourses about sickness and health, art and science, language and literature, and mortality and death. In dissecting what she terms 'the ideological regime of cancer,' Anne Boyer has produced a profound and unforgettable document on the experience of life itself." ―Sally Rooney, author of Normal People

"Anne Boyer’s radically unsentimental account of cancer and the 'carcinogenosphere' obliterates cliche. By demonstrating how her utterly specific experience is also irreducibly social, she opens up new spaces for thinking and feeling together. The Undying is…


The Cancer Journals

By Audre Lorde,

Book cover of The Cancer Journals

Why this book?

Lorde begins The Cancer Journals by asserting that every woman who has breast cancer reacts to it her own way. I found that idea, expressed in Lorde’s generous, but firm prose, very comforting following my own diagnosis: “Each woman responds to the crisis that breast cancer brings to her life out of a whole pattern, which is the design of who she is and how her life has been lived.” Reading Lorde made me feel less alone as a breast cancer patient.

The Cancer Journals

By Audre Lorde,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Cancer Journals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Moving between journal entry, memoir, and exposition, Audre Lorde fuses the personal and political as she reflects on her experience coping with breast cancer and a radical mastectomy.

A Penguin Classic

First published over forty years ago, The Cancer Journals is a startling, powerful account of Audre Lorde's experience with breast cancer and mastectomy. Long before narratives explored the silences around illness and women's pain, Lorde questioned the rules of conformity for women's body images and supported the need to confront physical loss not hidden by prosthesis. Living as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Lorde heals and re-envisions herself…


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Book cover of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Why this book?

The Emperor of All Maladies lays out the history of research on specific cancer treatments, showing that most treatment plans have a foundation in vetted quality research. I found that very helpful once I was diagnosed with cancer since it allowed me to trust my doctors and their recommendations. The book also shows that most cancer researchers are dedicated to the work and to patients. As an oncology nurse I worked with physicians whose egos were the focus of their practice. Mukherjee’s portrayals of altruistic physicians helped me see doctors more generously.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Emperor of All Maladies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2011

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction 2011

Shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize 2011

Shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize

In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee, doctor, researcher and award-winning science writer, examines cancer with a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with - and perished from - for more than five thousand years.

The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience and perseverance, but also…


Illness as Metaphor

By Susan Sontag,

Book cover of Illness as Metaphor

Why this book?

I return to this book again and again because I find it so smart about the metaphors that people use to talk about cancer. In particular, Sontag picks apart the war metaphors used to describe cancer and its treatment. When I worked in oncology as a nurse, I never talked about treating cancer as “war.” Cancer results from a genetic mistake that causes cells to grow and grow when they are supposed to die. My body is not a battlefield and thinking about myself that way is profoundly disempowering.

Illness as Metaphor

By Susan Sontag,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Illness as Metaphor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A discussion of the ways in which illness is regarded pays particular attention to fantasies that pertain to cancer


Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book

By Susan M. Love, Karen Lindsey, Elizabeth Love

Book cover of Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book

Why this book?

After being diagnosed with breast cancer I sampled outside information about breast cancer sparingly and this was the only book that made the cut. I dipped into it when I had a question and otherwise left it alone, but afterward I was usually glad I checked to see what Susan Love had to say and appreciated the big picture context that the book offers. If you can afford it, get the most recent edition since it will be the most accurate about treatment plans and ongoing research. 

Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book

By Susan M. Love, Karen Lindsey, Elizabeth Love

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a woman faced with a diagnosis of breast cancer, the information available today is vast, uneven, and confusing. For more than two decades, readers have relied on Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book to guide them through this frightening thicket of research and opinion to find the best possible options for their particular situations. This sixth edition explains exciting advances in targeted treatments, hormonal therapies, safer chemotherapy, and immunologic approaches as well as new forms of surgery and radiation. There is extensive guidance for the increasing number of women living for years with metastatic breast cancer. With Dr. Love's warm…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cancer, breast cancer, and health?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cancer, breast cancer, and health.

Cancer Explore 84 books about cancer
Breast Cancer Explore 7 books about breast cancer
Health Explore 75 books about health

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Braiding Sweetgrass, Undrowned, and Being Mortal if you like this list.