Juan Alvarado Valdivia turns cancer into a character in his book, Cancerlandia!
An Oakland writer of memoir, screenplays, and short stories won’t let cancer get in his way.
The nemesis in Juan Alvarado Valdivia’s memoir Cancerlandia! wears a pressed black suit and a derby hat. He’s a cunning, middle-aged man who likes going to the racetrack with a flask of bourbon. His name is Mr. Hodgkins. Alvarado Valdivia’s imagined alter ago surfaced not long after he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 30. He envisioned the character as a way to reassure his sister that everything was going to be OK. I told her Mr. Hodgkins picked the wrong dude to mess with.
Putting a face on his disease and writing about his illness was intuitive for Alvarado Valdivia, who grew up in Fremont, studied film at San Francisco State University, and had started a master’s program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga nine months before he got the diagnosis. “I don’t know where he came from,” Alvarado Valdivia said. “I thought he should look cold and calculating, the opposite of me. I figured that would make him a good adversary.”
Alvarado Valdivia went to battle both literally and figuratively with Mr. Hodgkins, as he fought cancer and tried to wrestle his experience into a book. “I had a strong desire to make something good come out of what was happening to me,” Alvarado Valdivia said. “First I tried to write a “how-to” book, like how to do Hodgkins lymphoma well.” That proved impossible when Alvarado Valdivia realized that he was barely coping and that cancer was not the only demon he faced.
“I had issues with anger management and a troublesome relationship with alcohol, and everything converged at once,” he said. “Cancer was a big factor, but I can’t blame it all on that.” As Alvarado Valdivia underwent treatment at San Francisco General Hospital, including three surgeries, six months of chemotherapy infusions, and a month of almost daily radiation treatments, repeated episodes of binge drinking left him floundering. “I was so angry back then. I was hardest on myself and then on the people closest to me. My girlfriend bore the brunt of that.”
What turned things around? “When my girlfriend broke up with me, it forced me to ruminate on all the ugly drinking episodes that scared her off,” he said. From there, he acknowledged that he needed help and sought out therapy shortly after he completed his cancer treatment. Biking the six-mile round trip to his appointments, and a large dose of heavy metal music were another part of his treatment regimen. “Metallica’s Death Magnetic album was my go-to fight music,” he said. “I felt I needed fierce, mighty music to help me win against my illness.”
As his disease came under control, Alvarado Valdivia’s book morphed into a memoir of short chapters, most no longer than a page or two. He infuses the heartbreak with humor. And his encounters with his personified opponent, Mr. Hodgkins, make for some of the most compelling reading.
Despite all the hard living he’s done, at 36, Alvarado Valdivia still has a boyish, youthful look. Today, he’s five years cancer-free and has celebrated his first anniversary with his wife, Maria. He lives in Oakland and works as a program associate for the nonprofit ChangeLab Solutions. He’s finished a screenplay, and he’s working on a collection of short stories.
“So far, so good,” he said.