By Andrea Wilson Woods
This is Andrea Wilson Woods’ heart-wrenching memoir of her 15-year-old sister’s, Adrienne Wilson’s, battle against late stage liver cancer.
Specifically, Adrienne was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a rare condition in teenagers and usually associated with chronic hepatitis B and C infections.
As the two sisters come to realize, their drug-using mother, a nurse, probably had at least hepatitis B when she gave birth to Adrienne. At the time (1986), pregnant women and newborns weren’t regularly tested for hepatitis. When their mother discovered later that she had hepatitis, Andrea wasn’t informed enough to realize that Adrienne should be tested as well.
While much of this story deals with the battle that Adrienne waged against the cancer and Andrea waged as an advocate for her sister with the health care system, insurance companies and the Burbank school system, it is also a deeply touching story about the relationship between the two sisters.
Andrea and Adrienne are half sisters, separated by 14 years. The mother they shared was a nurse who came home from her night shift with prescription drugs and other medical supplies in her pockets. Just as Andrea was graduating from the University of Southern California and Adrienne was eight years old, their mother was caught injecting herself with morphine at work. She lost her job and her nursing license. She sent Adrienne to live with Andrea. Eventually Andrea became Adrienne’s legal guardian.
Adrienne’s cancer diagnosis came just three weeks before the end of her freshman year in high school. She was an honors student, dyed her hair blue, excelled in dance classes, had a lengthy list of things she wanted to be when she grew up and a smile that could make a room glow.
Andrea tells her story in chapters that cover a day or two or three at a time, numbered from the day of her diagnosis to the day of her death. That creates a tension for the reader, who has an awareness of how close to the end Adrienne is as the story progresses, which neither Andrea nor Adrienne have at the time.
Andrea is a good writer and a committed fighter. She refused to let doctors tell her as prognosis for Adrienne’s condition. She was willing to try anything and everything that showed some promise as a treatment. This meant that even as they are being treated by doctors they liked at UCLA, Andrea is calling clinics in Mexico to check out unproven approaches. She was brutal to their first oncologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, nicknaming him “Dr. No.” After seeing four other patients with this condition die, he was less optimistic about the future than Andrea wanted to hear.
It’s impossible to imagine what it was like to be in Andrea’s shoes. It’s too much to ask that a person could be philosophical about the approaching death of a loved one. But Andrea’s all-out war often made me think about B. J. Miller, a hospice and palliative care doctor as well as being a triple amputee in San Francisco. His perspective on hardship, death and disabilities is healing.
Andrea has gone on to work as a patient advocate and to help others with a loved facing serious medical challenges becomes advocates as well. Her memoir never bogs down in the details of life with a terminal illness and at the same time, it serves as a model for being an advocate for a loved one.
The final chapters are haunting. You’ll close this book wishing you’d had a chance to meet Adrienne.
About the Author: Andrea Wilson Woods
Andrea Wilson Woods is the founder of the nonprofit Blue Faery: The Adrienne Wilson Liver Cancer Association and the CEO and co-founder of Cancer University, a for-profit-social-benefit digital health company.
For more than 10 years, Andrea worked as a teacher and professor for public and private schools and universities.
In 2014, she served on an HCC Patient Advisory Board for Eli Lilly. She is a frequent speaker at medical conferences. As a patient advocate, she serves on many committees and advisory boards including NCI Hepatobiliary Task Force, Target Pharma Solutions HCC Advisory Board and ASCO’s Systemic Therapy for Advanced Hepatocellular Carcinoma Guideline Panel and the Mayo Clinic Hepatobiliary SPORE
She earned a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California. Her writing has won national awards. Her medical memoir, BETTER OFF BALD: A LIFE IN 147 DAYS, was published in 2019.