In many Greek households, even today, mentioning the word ‘cancer’ is still taboo. It might be whispered or called “the bad disease,” so it is rare to find Greeks or Greek-Americans openly sharing stories of survival that can inspire people regardless of their health status, since everyone’s life has been touched by cancer whether they know someone who battled it or have gone through it themselves.
That Time I Got Cancer: A Love Story by Jim Zervanos draws the reader in from the very first page of this well-written memoir that reads like a novel as Zervanos recounts his dramatic and inspiring story. His family, friends, and team of doctors join him on his harrowing journey through countless tests and then undergoing surgery, to his eventual diagnosis with lymphoma and the treatment that followed. This is a moving account of how cancer affects not only Zervanos himself but also those closest to him and how those relationships evolve under the tension and stress of the diagnosis and treatment as well as the recovery. Lighthearted and tender moments relieve some of the tension in the story which offers hope for all those struggling in life whether they’re facing a personal health crisis or not.
As noted in his biography, Zervanos is the author of the novel Love Park. His award-winning short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Zervanos completed the Narrative Medicine Workshop at Columbia University and is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and Bucknell University, where he won the William Bucknell Prize for English and was an Academic All-American baseball player. He teaches at a high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two sons and coaches two Little League teams.
Zervanos spoke with The National Herald about the book, his writing process, his roots in Kos, and what he’s working on next.
TNH: When did you decide to share your story and how long did the writing process take?
Jim Zervanos: It took me a while to start writing— about a year after the illness struck and six months after I’d finished chemotherapy, when I felt healthy and fully recovered. At first, I didn’t admit to myself that I was writing a book; it felt presumptuous to think that there was an audience for my story, so I was motivated by practical concerns, to document the clinical story for my own medical record and safekeeping. But it wasn’t long before the whole story came rushing out of me, and it was cathartic, and soon I was writing for hours at a time and at a pace that my fingers could hardly keep up with, sometimes with tears streaming down my cheeks. Still, it took two years to write the first draft, and another three years to revise it into the book that has just been published.
TNH: Where in Greece is your family originally from?
JZ: Both my parents’ families are from Kos. My grandparents were immigrants in the early 1900’s. My mother’s parents settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my father’s parents settled in Reading, Pennsylvania, in the next county over.
TNH: What are you working on next?
JZ: After finishing That Time I Got Cancer: A Love Story, I wrote another memoir, which is called “Your Story Starts Here: A Year on the Brink with Generation Z”— about my life as a teacher of high school seniors, while being the father of two young sons— which will be published in the spring of 2024. Now I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel I started before I got sick, called American Gyro, about a Greek-American kid who leaves his small-town restaurant family to go to New York to become an actor, right before 9/11.
That Time I Got Cancer: A Love Story by Jim Zervanos is available online.
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