Editorial Review: Better Off Bald by Andrea Wilson Woods
Adrienne Wilson was just 15 years old when she was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer. In Better Off Bald, her older sister Andrea tells the emotional story of Adrienne’s final 147 days of life.
But the emotions are not all negative—Adrienne experiences some of the best moments of her life, such as meeting her favorite rock star, Dave Navarro, on “The Tonight Show” and later enjoying a private concert performed by him (made possible by the Make-a-Wish Foundation). Adrienne also finds peace in trying to better understand and forgive her neglectful, drug-addicted mother. Other moments are heart-wrenching as Andrea and Adrienne first come to terms with the diagnosis and then do all they can to battle the devastating cancer. Andrea notes at the end of the book that “Andrea didn’t beat cancer, but cancer didn’t beat her either … She lived more in 147 days than most people do in a lifetime.”
The tender relationship between Andrea and Adrienne is at the heart of this book. Being 14 years older than Adrienne, Andrea became her legal guardian as a young adult after fighting to permanently remove her from their mother, who she describes as “a manipulative, conniving woman who commits fraud as easily as most people tie their shoes.” This troubled childhood background is revealed gradually and expertly throughout the book, giving readers a deeper understanding and appreciation for the characters. Because of their unique circumstances, Adrienne and Andrea share both a deep sisterly bond and a powerful parent-child relationship, something many readers will be able to relate to.
Better Off Bald features a mix of both the technical and emotional aspects of dealing with cancer. On the technical side, readers learn all about cancer, chemo treatments, and the barrage of prescriptions used to treat countless symptoms. Andrea describes this as “riding the seesaw”—a constant balancing act of using medications to counteract the side effects of other medications. The technical details can sometimes be excessive—long lists of medications and their dosage schedules, a constant recounting of vital signs and various test results—but it does give an accurate portrayal of cancer, and those fighting their own battles with the disease will appreciate these details. The book also provides a candid view of the healthcare industry. Some nurses and doctors excel in their service while others lack either competence or bedside manner, often making things worse.
On the emotional side, Andrea expresses her feelings in a way that is both raw and beautiful. The pendulum swings from hopeful and positive to bitter and angry. There are moments of profound joy mixed with the most excruciating sorrow. Even though the story has a somber ending—as some cancer stories inevitably do—there is a powerful message about both living and dying with dignity. Andrea eventually came to know the truth of a friend’s words about battling cancer: “You will win if you measure winning in terms of good days and good hours.”
For readers who are personally facing cancer—in themselves or a loved one—this book will surely serve as a tremendous resource, for both its technical aspects and the complex emotional picture it paints. For all other people, it is definitely still worth the read. Its lessons about living life to its fullest, cherishing loved ones, and not giving up are invaluable.