Vivian Bearing, a fifty-year-old professor of English literature, is the protagonist of the story. She's spent her life researching and teaching the works of John Donne and other seventeenth-century poets. She is demanding of herself as well as her students. When she's diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she finds that her intellect, wit, and discipline won't help her in her fight for survival. As her body is destroyed by cancer and her pride is destroyed by humiliation, Vivian realizes she may have missed the most important things in life. In the end, she realizes "personal contact" and "human kindness" are what she needs as she sheds her masks of academia and her emotionless personality.
Dr. Harvey Keleklan tells Vivian she has cancer in an unemotional conversation, and he represents the lack of humanity doctors show with patients.
Susie Monahan is the nurse who sees Vivian as a person and gives her the personal care she needs in the end. Susie is humble and compassionate, fighting for Vivian's right to die with dignity.
Dr. Jason Posner, Vivian's former student, is much like Vivian in his rigid self-discipline and detachment from humanity. He wants Vivian's body for his research, depicting his inability to see her as a human. It's ironic when he says to Vivian, "Cancer is the only thing I've ever wanted." He's referring to cancer being the only disease he's ever wanted to research. Cancer is the last thing Vivian ever wanted.