Writing My Way Through Cancer
In January 2000 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was waiting
for a diagnosis, during the time I had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and
radiotherapy and in the early stages of recovery from my treatment I kept
a journal in which I dumped my feelings, used other kinds of raw writing,
recorded my responses to events in my life and wrote notes for poems.
I have always believed that writing is supportive but I was amazed at
the way it carried me through my illness. Whenever I was writing, whatever
I was writing I was ceased to be an ill person and became my whole self
involved with words and the world. I have now fleshed out my journal into
a book which also includes fourteen of the poems I wrote and a section
of therapeutic writing ideas
Here is part of a journal entry written two days after the diagnosis:
I wish I wasn't putting such a strain on Erwin. I am afraid the breast cancer nurse, who is coming again tomorrow, will give me more information that will worry me. I have to hang onto the thought of friends and the relatives and friends of people I know who have survived for years and years after breast cancer. I owe it to myself to manage my panic and to make this a life experience not a death experience, to concentrate on possibilities, to grab every moment of life I can, to use what has happened for writing, to include the awfulnesses but also the plusses. I mustn't forget the moments of joy: the sun lying in swathes on the grass, the sharp clean cut of the air, the disc of the sun on water. I must keep the words that came into my head about the snowdrops I saw in a garden when we walked to the shops a couple of hours ago. I think it's the starting point of a poem.
Drops of life on this distressed afternoon. Everything grey - the concrete frontage with miserable sticks like bunches of deadness. The small white bell heads could be gathered together - could be layers pressed to my breast - could fill the space that will be left by my missing breast. These drops are not drops. The weak heads are not weak, not drooping, not dropping. They are hanging bells with thin rims of green on their delicate undersides. They have pushed through the lumpy earth and stand unmoved by the thrusting wind, the bites of cold air. They are stronger than cones of buddleia, than the can-can poppy - a brazen girl kicking. Very small, they bend but do not give way, they refuse winter, silently they remind me it can end.
And here is the poem which I wrote a few weeks later:
As I stare at the small
Though they look weak
They have heaved through
And here is a poem which I wrote after all my treatment was finished.
WHEN IT'S ALL OVER
I'm going to throw open my windows
and yell: 'halleluiah',
dial up friends in the middle of the night to give them
the glad tidings, e-mail New South Wales and Pacific Palisades,
glorify the kitchen by making sixteen summer puddings,
watch blackberry purple soak slowly into
the bread and triumph over the curved glass of the bowls.
When it's all over I'll feed my
with lavender and aloe vera, lower my exhausted body into
foaming suds scented with honey and let it wallow,
reward it with a medal, beautify it with garlands of thornless roses,
wrap it in sleep. Then from tents of blurred dreams
I'll leap like a kangaroo, spout like a whale.
Once it's over I'm going to command
my computer to bellow
'Land of Hope and Glory,' loudspeaker my news
down these miles of orderly streets where the houses wear
mock Tudor beams and plastic Greek columns, dance
the Highland Fling in front of controlled tubs of cockerel geraniums,
sigh with enormous satisfaction when I make the evening headlines.
When it's finally over I'm going
to gather these fantasies,
fling them into my dented and long lost college trunk,
dump it in the unused cellar
climb back to strength
up my rope of words.
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