Having grown up in Pennsylvania’s Amish country with her U.S. serviceman father and Vietnamese mother, Brandy Liên Worrall always knew she wanted to write a memoir. Now living in Vancouver, she had a breadth of material to draw from, gleaning insight over the years into what her parents witnessed and endured in the Southeast Asian country that was devastated by war. Her plans, however—and her narrative—underwent a dramatic change when she learned she would be fighting a particularly aggressive form of cancer at age 31.
“I’ve been journalling since I was a teenager, and I became interested in writing my family’s stories when I was an undergraduate student, in writing about how much unspoken trauma that we’ve all experienced,” Worrall says in a phone interview. “I was thinking how that could help other people, too, who’ve experienced trauma and the types of issues you have with immigration and war. When I entered the MFA program at UBC it was my full intention to write a memoir about my family. But it was in the middle of my program that I got diagnosed with cancer, and that was when the story changed quite a bit.”
After discovering a lump in her breast—an irregularity that her family doctor initially told her not to worry about—she eventually learned she had Stage III multifocal triple negative breast cancer (BRCA2-positive). Hormone therapy and many drugs are ineffective in treating this type of cancer, making it especially difficult to beat.
Worrall’s course of treatment included a six-month chemotherapy trial, a bilateral mastectomy, and radiation.
That was in 2007. Now 39, Worrall is in remission. However, she still deals with multiple health challenges. She’s had several surgeries, including a recent proactive ovariectomy, the removal of her ovaries, since she’s at greater risk of ovarian cancer. She has chronic fatigue, a common experience among cancer survivors. And she’s experienced depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
But she’s also published a new book called What Doesn’t Kill Us (Rabbit Fool Press). Written in the first person and featuring excerpts from her Brandy’s Cancer Bash blog, it’s a no-holds-barred account of getting through her biopsy, bad news, and treatment. It also reveals how, by undergoing a battle with cancer, Worrall began to better understand what her parents went through during the longest war in America’s history.
“I did start to see a lot of parallels, like being at a certain age and facing your mortality in a way that your peers aren’t,” she says. “That’s when my father and I really started to come closer together.”
Her father died before her book came out. Once he got the news that he had cancer last March, he lived less than three weeks. Worrall had already been questioning the role her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange may have played in her own disease; with her father having succumbed to cancer too, she says she plans on researching the link between cancer and the highly toxic defoliating herbicide, with the hope of telling the stories of people still living with the chemical’s effects.
“There are a lot of anecdotes…of people my age whose fathers, primarily, were Vietnam War vets and who have had really grave medical experiences like mine,” Worrall explains, noting that she also had epilepsy as a child. “There are still people in Vietnam born with birth defects because of chemicals in the environment, in the water and the soil….I want to open a discussion of the legacy of Agent Orange, particularly for my second book.”
In What Doesn’t Kill Us, Worrall also writes about how her marriage broke down with her first husband, with whom she had two kids, while she was recovering from her treatment. She writes about how later she tried to kill herself with alcohol and pills.
She also writes about finding happiness and heartache again. Worrall went on to fall in love, remarry, lose a baby, and give birth to another. She’s still haunted by all of the difficult events in her life, but she’s also buoyed by what the future holds: a future centred on time with her family and time to write. She hopes readers will take with them the reminder that there’s always the promise of tomorrow.
“Writing is cathartic,” she says. “It gives me a purpose, because I know that from responses I’ve gotten [to the book] so far, it’s connected with a lot of people….It helps for people to know you can make it through really tough times. That fuels me in my writing.
“The main theme is survival,” she adds. “I want to open the discussions about war and trauma.”
Brandy Liên Worrall will be reading from her book on Thursday (January 15) at 7 p.m. at the Heartwood Community Café (317 East Broadway). On March 12, she’ll read at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch.