If you’re lucky, cancer can help you reconnect with friends and family. If you’re really lucky, old loves like art and music may reappear in your life as well. When I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, if you had asked me what I expected to happen, the last thing I would have said is, “I’m going to start writing poetry again.”
I’ve loved poetry ever since I can remember, and started writing it in grade school. I took a couple of poetry writing courses in college and kept reading and writing after that, getting a handful of them published. One of my proudest moments was having a poem published in a little journal that also included poems by William Kloefkorn (Nebraska’s poet laureate) and Ted Kooser (a two-time national poet laureate from Nebraska.) I even had a poem published in Rolling Stone magazine (which believe it or not, used to include poetry.)
Then it left me and I have no idea why. I stopped writing poems and barely read them. I missed it but I didn’t try to change it. I really thought that part of my life was over.
When I was diagnosed with DCIS some 20 years later, poems started speaking to me again. I remember reading a poem by Franz Wright in The New Yorker the day my oncologist recommended a mastectomy. That night, several tornadoes touched down around Omaha.
The first stanza read:
“What a day. I had some trouble
following the plot line; however,
the special effects were incredible.”
This couldn’t have spoken to me more directly if it were texted. My poetry radar was humming again. Several months later, my husband Bruce and I were vacationing in Cabo and stumbled into a CD launch party at an Italian restaurant. I was beyond floored when the singer started reciting a famous Beat poem, “Truth.” I had loved this poem in high school but hadn’t thought of it in a good 30 years. Turns out her dad wrote it. I found myself reciting the lines with her. G.K. Chesterton called coincidences “spiritual puns” and this sure felt like one. It was around this time that I started writing again.
Since then, I’ve written dozens of poems and had a handful of them published. And I’m so grateful to have this part of myself back. I don’t know how to attribute it to anything but breast cancer. No matter how early it’s caught, it’s still a wake-up call. You start wondering what you want to do with this life you’re so lucky to have.
It’s funny, people ask me about fear of reoccurrence. I’m not worried about my breast cancer coming back. I’m worried about the muse leaving me again. That’s my fear of reoccurrence.
Note: Here’s a poem I wrote about my friend Pam, and included in my book From Zero to Mastectomy. Pam has the face of a beauty queen and the heart of a lion.