A memoir about cancer from the other side of the bed

Their love story is sweet and also remarkable: Woody Weingarten and Nancy Fox met as teenagers in New York and vowed eternal love. They dated for a while and then, questioning their commitment, cut it off and completely lost touch.

Decades later, after a chance meeting in Mill Valley, their love rekindled. At midlife, they became husband and wife.

Seven years into their marriage, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Life became a wild ride.

Woody Weingarten and Nancy Fox

In “Rollercoaster,” a book 20 years in the making, Weingarten offers an unblinking look at how breast cancer affected him and Fox from diagnosis to the present day. Its primary focus is to help male caregivers through the process, thus the subtitle: “How a Man Can Survive His Partner’s Breast Cancer.”

“Rollercoaster” is also meant to help others navigate the emotional and physical ups and downs, as well as the mountains of confusing medical studies and different treatment options, that come with the disease.

Today life is good, Weingarten declares during an interview in the couple’s sun-drenched hilltop home in San Anselmo. With Fox cancer free for many years, they travel, enjoy a busy social life and pursue lifelong passions. Weingarten, 77, who retired in 2007 after 24 years as managing editor of J. (formerly the Jewish Bulletin), still writes for local newspapers and is working on a new book. Fox, 75, a pianist whose white baby grand piano is the focal point of their living room, still performs at local retirement homes, senior centers and JCCs,.

Weingarten acknowledges that “Rollercoaster” isn’t exactly an easy read, but he believes it is a valuable one.

“My major aim is to help people — men whose partners have any life-threatening disease,” he says. “What you go through. What you can expect.”

He utilized his journalism skills to craft a love story/“memoir-chronicle” and comprehensive resource for anyone affected by breast cancer, with current, meticulously researched information on medications, scientific studies and helpful resources.

He also includes a short list of books written for partners of breast cancer patients. “In the last 15 years there have been 15 books published by [and for] men,” he says, while noting that “most of them are way out of date, not well written.”

Weingarten’s book is “positive,” he says. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” It also is sprinkled with humor. In fact, asked for the most important piece of advice he can give a caregiver and patient, Weingarten replies: “Surround yourselves with people who will evoke positive feelings or laughter.” Otherwise, he warns, the depression and fear can be “overwhelming.”

He writes about the highs they achieved after Fox recovered from her treatment. She participated in breast-cancer fundraising walks; they vacationed in Greece and traveled to China to climb the Great Wall. And he cites some of the simpler joys, like spending time with their grandchildren.

Certainly their marriage has been tested. “Rollercoaster” discloses their tiffs and trials, including his bout with prostate cancer, the disease that killed his father. That’s when “I reached out to a God I wasn’t sure existed,” Weingarten writes.

He elaborated on his experience fighting prostate cancer in a contemplative 2007 column in J., writing, “Baruch HaShem, Baruch HaShem, Baruch HaShem. … Thank you God, for giving me my life. Thank you God, for healing me. Thank you God, for extending my life.”

In his book, Weingarten shares that he sometimes “leaned on the talmudic” — specifically, Hillel’s words “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” — as well.

“That has been one of my tenets for as long as I can remember,” he says. “It really has been a touchstone for me my whole life.”

The desire to help himself by helping others also drove Weingarten to begin leading a support group for men whose partners have (or had) breast cancer or other life-threatening diseases. Though participants have come and gone, Marin Man to Man still meets weekly, after nearly 20 years with Weingarten at the helm.

Yes, cancer can recur. But neither Weingarten nor Fox dwell in fear: They’re too busy living life.

“Rollercoaster” by Woody Weingarten (144 pages, Vitality Press, $18.18)

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.