Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Rearranged: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed

Amanda Caleb
Scranton, Pennsylvania, United States

Keeping secrets? We don’t keep secrets. Do we?” (23). This internal questioning precipitates Kathleen Watt’s disclosure of a bump on her gum to her partner Evie, which begins the story of her winding journey with cancer in Rearranged: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed. Secrets are exactly what this lyrical memoir reveals: secrets about the world of opera, the world of the hospital from the patient’s perspective, and her domestic life. She invites the reader to journey with her as her face and her life are rearranged even as her spirit remains resolute and resilient.

Watt’s diagnosis of a maxillary osteogenic sarcoma—after a series of increasingly frustrating encounters with dentists who misdiagnose her condition—is followed by more than thirty surgeries. The first surgery is described in the most detail and marks the end of Watt’s career as an opera singer. She writes, “I was scheduled to go under the knife on an April Tuesday at the very hour I had planned to sing for my spot in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus” (p. 77). As the memoir progresses, the poignancy of this line reveals the tragedy of not only her cancer diagnosis, but also that of her treatment and recovery. Opting for an autographic reconstruction—with a 97% success rate and the hope of returning to the Met—Watt experiences setbacks and meets physicians and nursing staff who range from compassionate to callous.

In a particularly cruel moment, Watt encounters a former colleague from the Met who also had a maxillary osteogenic sarcoma, opted for an obturator and returned to singing six weeks after diagnosis and after only four surgeries (p. 311). Here Watt lays bare a painful, unproductive, and common question: was her suffering her fault because of the decision she made? While not always confronted directly, suffering is palpable throughout Watt’s descriptions of her many surgeries and recoveries, the loss of her profession, and the end of her marriage with Evie.

But the gravity of her situation is paired with—and indeed overpowered by—humor and insight, moving from bodily to self-deprecating humor but always and essentially humanizing her experience. Indeed, one walks away from this memoir with a sense of joy and hope, a testament to Watt’s evocative writing and survival instinct, reminding readers of what it means to not just live in the face of tragedy, but to live with spirit.

Watt’s resilience and writing style echoes that of Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Short, anecdotal chapters that are vivid and visceral bring the reader into Watt’s sometimes chaotic, sometimes cruel, sometimes comical but always candid experiences as a post-surgery cancer patient. She reflects that “effective caregivers must somewhat inhabit the patient” (p. 150). So, too, must effective readers of medical memoir inhabit the author, and Watt’s writing generously invites us to do just that.

Near the end of her memoir, Watt writes of sharing an early draft with her surgeon, who replies with tears in his eyes, “Kathleen, I can’t read about your pain” (p. 330). But we are compelled to read about both her pain and joy because of her brave and authentic storytelling. This operatic memoir sings to all readers but especially cancer survivors and health care providers: it is a lyrical exploration of vulnerability and grit that is as educational as it is inspirational.

Rearranged: An Opera Singer’s Facial Cancer and Life Transposed
Kathleen Watt, 2023
ISBN: 978-1-956-47434-3

AMANDA M. CALEB, PhD, MPH, is professor of medical humanities at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, having previously served as founding director and professor of Medical and Health Humanities and professor of English at Misericordia University. Her research interests include the medical and public health humanities, health communication, health narratology, narrative medicine, and bioethics and the Holocaust. She is author of the forthcoming book Global Health Inequities: Differing Experiences (Cambridge University Press, 2025). 

Spring 2024



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