"If I don't laugh, I'll cry" is the leitmotif of Robyn Levy's medical memoir and, my God, she had a lot to cry about. Most of Me is the account, in almost relentlessly jaunty tones, of her voyage through not one but two of the more recalcitrant puzzle-grounds of modern medicine: Parkinson's disease and cancer.
Levy, a Toronto-born, now Vancouver-based writer, painter, wife and mother of a teenage daughter, was 43 when, in 2008, she was hit with the diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson's, unknowingly and involuntarily following in the footsteps of her father, who had been diagnosed not long before. Despite this unpromising genetic heritage (Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis also lurked in the background), Levy refused to accept the diagnosis and sought a second opinion, which only confirmed the first. There was nothing to do but accept.
"Much to my chagrin, neurodegenerative diseases don't dillydally," she writes, "there's always more damage to be done." The damage was both physical – a deteriorating walk, a dead left hand, a rigid body, a renegade baby toe ("oddly jutting out straight to the side") – and emotional: depression, depression, depression. She soon has trouble with the most mundane of tasks: flossing her teeth, folding the laundry, chopping vegetables, vacuuming, typing.
She finds solace, or at least distraction, in a completely understandably mordant way, reading newspaper obits and composing her own ("In lieu of flowers, donations to her favourite charity, [daughter]Naomi's Soy Latte Trust Fund, would be appreciated"), branching out to fantasy business cards ("ROBYN MICHELE LEVY: Social Magnet and Mortality Mentor"), weather forecasts ("It's September. Forecast calls for heavy showers of advice from oncologists and a flood of anxiety") and the occasional news release ("For Immediate Release: Middle-Aged Dame Diversifies Disease Portfolio").
She is just getting used to life on the right side ("It turns out, most activities I do can be done with one hand") when, eight months after her Parkinson's diagnosis, she discovers not one but two lumps in her right breast. Biopsy follows ultrasound follows mammogram, ending in the three-word diagnosis that, at that point, must have sounded more like a death sentence: invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer.
"The good thing about having two simultaneous diseases," Levy writes, "is I'm spared from wallowing in either one too long." Had she wallowed in both, it would have been completely understandable. Within three weeks she'd had a mastectomy. Nor was that the end of it. Still to come were the bone scan (to see whether the cancer had spread), the cancer-support group, and the removal of her ovaries, otherwise known as an oopherectomy. ("It sounds really sexy when you pronounce it with a heavy French accent, as in OOff-urr-eck-tum-mee.")
Of course, as Levy admits, her jokes are her defence, and when they collapse so does she, thereby paving the way for the entrance of Cry Lady, her phlegm-filled alter ego, always weeping or ready to weep, sniffling, honking, occasionally snorting and at any given moment only a handkerchief away.
But the fact is, even in "this uncharted territory of disease and detours and dead ends," there is scope for the ludicrous: the fact that her new-found cleaning lady's name is Lourdes; the fact that her middle-aged neighbour has launched a garage band (composed solely of dentists; she calls them the Overbites) who unwittingly serenade her, over and over ("until they get it right"), with their cover of Pretty Woman the week she gets home from the hospital with one breast lopped off; the fact that side-effects of her Parkinson's medication can extend to "compulsive gambling, excessive shopping, overeating, cross-dressing, and hypersexuality." The rolling tide of jokes, puns, wordplays ("I consider my body an embarrassment of glitches") can be a little overwhelming, certainly, but what monster would deny her them?
Riffing on Nietzsche ("What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"), Levy finds that what didn't kill her made her stranger. "I should know: I'm getting stranger every day. One disease makes me move weirdly. The other disease makes me look lopsided. And they both make me feel self-consciously conspicuous …"
She knows best, of course. But she did survive. Her mastectomy was performed three years ago; she has presumably been in the clear since. A tentative, ever-ready-to-be-snatched-away clear, perhaps, and therefore, one assumes, all the more precious. I confess I began this book filled with dread and finished it filled with pleasure. Those suffering ill health will find amusement, entertainment, possibly solace, perhaps even a respite; those fortunate enough to enjoy good health will, if they're sensible, be as grateful as they ought to be.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto writer and editor, frequently reviews for Globe Books.