Cover image for Staying alive : a family memoir
Staying alive : a family memoir
Reibstein, Janet.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
London ; New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by Boltzbrinck Publishers, [2002]

Physical Description:
248 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RC280.B8 R44 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Staying Alive is the beautifully wrought memoir of three generations of family life, beginning in depression-era Paterson, New Jersey, where the three Smith sisters-Janet Reibstein's mother and two aunts-and their close-knit extended, Jewish family settle in the New World. Over fifty years, we see Janet's relatives grow into the professionally successful, ethnically mixed family typical in America today. What makes it atypical is the specter of breast cancer that hangs like a dark cloud over all the women in the family. It claims her two aunts first, then her mother, then a cousin. Finally Janet faces a far-reaching decision: to break the pattern and undergo a preemptive mastectomy.

This family portrait is also a palimpsest of the history of the disease. We see how support systems and awareness have grown over the years and how advances in research give women fighting breast cancer a higher survival rate and more humane treatments than the dark years of the Smith girls' early struggles.

Staying Alive is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, a brilliant rendering of the emotional and psychological shadows cast on both the afflicted and the family members who support them. It is a story of sisters, of mothers and daughters, and also the men who loved them. In the end we are inspired by the extraordinary strength of these women, by their will to fight the disease, and the power of love in survival.

Author Notes

Janet Reibstein is a leading psychologist born, raised, and educated in the United States, but a long-time resident of the UK. She is a university professor, clinician, writer, and broadcaster on the psychology of relationships

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The author has penned a haunting family memoir. Born in the 1920s, the three Smith sisters were bright, beautiful, and full of promise. When each in succession was diagnosed with breast cancer, they struggled to survive both the disease and the primitive treatments available in the 1950s and 1960s. After watching these women--her mother and her two aunts--lose their fights, the author decided to take a more proactive approach to her own health care. When her cousin informed her that she, too, had fallen victim to the family curse, Reibstein resolved to make a preemptive strike against her genetic enemy. Opting for a preventative mastectomy was an excruciatingly difficult decision to make, but Reibstein openly shares her harrowing intellectual, emotional, and physical journey to wellness. Women with a history of breast cancer in their families will appreciate the abundance of practical medical information provided in this passionate chronicle. Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Reibstein, a psychotherapist living in England, is "a member of a breast cancer family" her mother and her two aunts died of the disease, and she and her cousins have struggled to fight their own cancers. Thus, while this is a "family memoir," it's organized by an illness, rather than by the standard fare of births, marriages and careers. In the prologue, Reibstein tells readers outright that she's elected to have "prophylactic bi-lateral mastectomies" surgical removal of her breast tissue to escape this genetic curse. With that foreknowledge, she goes back to her mother's story, from Regina's girlhood in Paterson, N.J., to her married life in Great Neck, N.Y., first watching one sister's painful death from breast cancer, then discovering her own lump and hearing of her other sister's untreated cancer and death. In the 1940s, there were "no mammograms or breast checks." Women with diseased breasts felt alone, akin to "damaged goods." With great will and aggressive medical interventions, Regina lived 21 years after her first surgery. Her pain, insight and growing spiritual strength is conveyed through her remarkable journal, excerpted generously here. After Reibstein's mother's death in 1985, she begins confronting her genetic inheritance more proactively, exploring the advisability of elective surgery. While her husband remains sensible about the various concerns of breast removal, Reibstein struggles mightily before she finally says, "I am beyond breasts." There are many fine stories here about dying with dignity and with disability and about the courage to sacrifice vanity in order to live without fear. (Sept.) Forecast: This moving chronicle will resonate with Jewish-American women in their 40s and 50s; a blurb from someone like Gloria Steinem or Susan Love would certainly help sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Part I Innocence
1 Three Sistersp. 5
2 Separationsp. 16
3 Fannie's Storyp. 27
Part II Learning
4 Regina's Long Story Beginsp. 49
5 Regina: Living with the Enemyp. 69
6 Mary's Story/Regina's Storyp. 81
7 The Cursep. 95
8 Regina's Story: Attempted Lifep. 103
9 Regina's Story: Fighting Backp. 115
10 Shadowsp. 133
11 Regina: Ending: Ip. 143
12 Regina: Ending: IIp. 158
Part III Decision
13 Facing Factsp. 185
14 Decisionp. 192
15 The Operationp. 209
16 Almost Therep. 232
17 Staying Alivep. 238