Herbert M. Howe was 31 years old and working on his doctoral thesis in African studies at Harvard when a lump was removed from his wrist. "Herb, I don't want to shock you," his doctor told him, "but our biopsy shows that you do have cancer, a very rare form of fibrosarcoma. There's an 80% chance that you'll die within five years."
That was in August 1976. Now, 4½ years later, Howe is alive and, according to the tests he regularly takes, in excellent health. No doubt much of the credit for that must go to the intravenous chemotherapy that Howe endured for six months, but Howe himself gives at least equal credit to the vigorous physical activity in which he engaged even on those days when his hopes were bleakest.
Howe tells the story of his stubborn and courageous fight to live in Do Not Go Gentle (Norton, $10.95). Like other books in the genre, it is full of grisly details about hospitals and treatments and countless hours of agony. What makes the book distinctive is its suggestion that sports may have helped cure Howe's cancer.
"I grabbed sports as eagerly as a school-child pulls on his first Little League jersey," Howe writes. "Sports emphasized my disinclination to depend upon friends. Friends couldn't give me what I needed most: pride in myself, a sense of control and a chance to test myself against an intimidating foe."
Often against the wishes of his doctors, Howe staggered out of chemotherapy and onto the playing field. The range of activities in which he participated is startling: running, swimming, squash, baseball, basketball, canoeing, weightlifting, scuba diving, boxing, hang gliding. He had been athletic as a boy and had been fairly active in sports when he was in his 20s, but he became even more athletic as the prospect of death hung over him. He writes:
"In its small way, athletic defeat approximated death. Both were inevitable and not necessarily painful. The more familiar defeat became, the less I might fear death."
The point of the story, of course, is that in the end he won. To the question, "Did sports cure me of cancer?" he has no clear answer. He does believe, though, that as he stretched his playing capacities he also increased his capacity to endure chemotherapy, that "by nudging me beyond my supposed limits, sports granted dignity and self-esteem when I needed them the most." Out of this dogged struggle he has made a fine book.