I’m starting my first day of residency for an MFA in poetry writing through the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and it’s all breast cancer’s fault.   

I guess I should explain. I started pursuing my undergraduate degree in journalism 31 years ago and eventually got a degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During that time, I took a couple of poetry writing classes for fun. I had loved reading and writing poetry since I was a little kid. In college, I got a handful of things published and enjoyed it. One of my instructors said I should be pushing myself and going to graduate school.

But I went from coasting to drifting away from poetry completely. I never wrote it and barely read it. But when I was diagnosed with DCIS in 2008, poetry started speaking to me again. First I started reading it again, then I stared writing it. Now, as before, I’ve gotten a handful of things published or accepted for publication over the coming months. The difference now is I do want to push myself. I want to get better at my craft.

I can’t say I might not have arrived at this point without breast cancer, but I honestly doubt it. No matter how early stage it is when it shows up, cancer is a wake-up call. It makes you wonder what it is you plan to do with this life you’re so lucky to have.

Some of us in the breast cancer blogging community seem to have arrived at a crossroads. Katie is tired of fighting and of losing friends, and wondering just how much you can say about breast cancer. Marie is taking a medical break. I’m going to have to devote time to poetry, likely at the expense of my breast cancer social media activity and blogging (unless I can figure out how to give up sleeping).

It might feel like you’re giving up if you don’t continue to fight for the friends you’ve lost, and we’ve all lost too many. But I also feel very strongly that if we don’t live the life that matters to us, we’re doing them an even bigger disservice. We owe it to them to make every minute count.

I don’t plan to walk away from breast cancer advocacy completely. The community I’ve found online means too much to me. I may not be blogging as often and instead of focusing on breast cancer, I may want to share what I’ve learned in case anyone wants to try their hand at writing as therapy. My friend Pam was a big journaler and helped other women with cancer learn how to journal. Maybe the best thing I can do for her memory is to do the same with poetry.


Picking Blackberries

(This is a “summer rerun” of a post I wrote last August. The blackberries were earlier than ever this year so I’m posting it now. This repost is  a bit tinged with sadness because our friend Rachel of Cancer Culture Chronicles, who also enjoyed her garden, commented on my original post and wanted to hear more about gardening in Nebraska. Rachel died in February. Rach, this one’s for you. -Love, Jacks)

It’s August, and that means it’s time to pick blackberries. This is the time of year when we get several quarts every couple of days from the unruly tangle of blackberry bushes in our back yard. It’s been so hot that the large metal bowl I like to use gets almost too hot to touch, so I swapped it out for a plastic bowl. Luckily, the heat has backed off a bit.

Our blackberry bushes are thornless, which wasn’t supposed to happen. We’d always heard that thornless blackberries don’t survive Nebraska winters, but we accepted a half-dozen cuttings from Bruce’s sister’s Kansas City plants figuring we had nothing to lose. Now they’re threatening to take over that part of the yard and we get a bountiful crop of blackberries each year, enough to put on our daily yogurt and freeze for the winter. (I would say “and to share” but I’m selfish where blackberries are concerned.)

While the blackberry bushes’ attempts to crowd out the viburnum and buffalo grass could be likened to the endless replication of cancer cells, they remind me of my cancer journey for other reasons.

First, their harvest season coincides with my treatment timeline. I had my mastectomy on July 15, 2008, and remember interrupting my blackberry picking several times to take phone calls from Bruce or Dr. Moshman as we were plotting our next steps.

One phone call that stands out for me was shortly after I started taking Tamoxifen. Dr. Moshman asked me to schedule a lab appointment to get some clotting tests. (Tamoxifen puts you at increased risk of blood clots.) Sure, no problem. I wondered why the lab tech said, “I hope you brought plenty of blood today,” until she pulled out 10 vials. I must have taken every clotting test known to mankind.

The other reason is more basic and possibly more instructive. Picking blackberries forces you to be in the moment. Sure, your mind can wander, but making your way through a blackberry patch provides plenty of sights and sounds that invite you to be here now. The flutter of wings when you startle a berry-loving robin. The intricate design of a banana spider’s web. The swallowtail butterfly weaving in and out of the neighboring dill.

Like pulling weeds, watching a baseball game or getting lost in a really good book, picking blackberries takes you out of yourself. Which is a very good thing where cancer is concerned. You can’t eradicate it from your life, but you can and should call the occasional time out.

3 Things You Should Know About the Healthcare Debate

It’s not overstating it to say we’ve reached a big moment in American history. The Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act is big. New Deal big. Civil Rights Act big.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruling was only the beginning. Now the hard part begins. We can expect nonstop heated debate in the coming months. Republicans are going to do everything they can to repeal the law and are already beating the “anti-tax” drums.

So you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that Republicans used to support the individual mandate. Mitt Romney may be the most famous one, but he’s far from alone. The individual mandate was introduced as Republican legislation in 1993, as a rebuke of President Clinton’s single payer proposal. A terrific Ezra Klein article in the New Yorker lays out the history (and political cognitive dissonance) extremely well. If you support the AHA, you might want to ask your Republican House and Senate representatives what’s changed. I certainly plan to ask mine.

You also may not be aware that the right to emergency care is already law. I had no idea  about this until I read an LA Times article reprinted in my local paper yesterday. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act became law (under a bipartisan Congress) in 1986. For 26 years, the law of the land has been for hospitals to treat emergency patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. This is the right and humane thing to do, but we never figured out who is supposed to pay for it. Those of you who don’t like the idea of a medical insurance “tax” are already being taxed for it when hospitals shift the costs of treating these patients.

The third thing you should know is that the debate is about more than health care. It’s about what kind of nation we want to be and how we care for the least among us. In a brilliant New Yorker piece, Dr. Atul Gawande explains the history and trajectory of social change as it applies to “wicked problems”–complex social problems such as poverty and yes, health care. He explains the “rhetoric of intransigence” used to argue against basic social advances and how it is being applied to the health care debate. Dr. Gawande also points out that every major social advance of the last 300 years has meant widening our sphere of moral inclusion.

Dr. Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said much the same in a recent speech to graduates of Harvard Medical School. He dedicated his moving, eloquent speech to Isaiah, a patient killed not by leukemia, but by the hopelessness caused by poverty. He said it is time to recover and celebrate a moral vocabulary in our nation–one that speaks without apology or hesitation of the right to health care–the human right–and against blindness to the needs of the powerless. (And if you think of the powerless as “other,” you shouldn’t. Too many of us are just a layoff away from medical bankruptcy.)

Dr. Berwick spoke of the special obligation of doctors by virtue of their oath. But I think we all bear responsbility for understanding what’s at stake, and for speaking up. Every single one of us is going to need health care at some point in our lives. It’s too important to leave to partisan politics.