What Do Chasing An MFA & Breast Cancer Have in Common?

If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I’ve compared breast cancer to everything from golf to riding a motorcycle. Pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts might seem like a bigger stretch than any of them, but as I enter the third week of my first semester, I’ve found more similarities than I expected.

1. Both can make you feel overwhelmed. When I was first diagnosed, my mind was spinning like a hamster on a wheel and I couldn’t sleep. While trying to figure out a treatment plan, I’d wake up in a panic wondering what to do. While trying to figure out a study plan during residency, I’d wake up in a panic wondering what I had done.

2. Both require stillness to achieve your goals. You have got to find that place of stillness to make the right treatment decision. I could tell I had made the right decision when the churning in my head stopped. You have also got to find that stillness in order to create a poem, a short story, a novel. You may need to take a break from all your frenetic activity, online as well as offline.

3. Both keep your brain humming along. The hamster wheel sensation is not pleasant; it’s a mind spinning with absolutely nowhere to go. As the date of my mastectomy approached, the churn in my head was replaced by a constant low-level humming, like a low-level caffeine buzz. Now my head is humming with poetry. It’s a mix of things I’ve read kicking in and ideas for poems and essays and yes, deadlines. But it’s my brain trying to find the patterns in what I’m learning, a far cry from anticipating very personal and very scary surgery.

4. Both are lonely endeavors. The loneliest I’ve ever been in my life was when I was coming to my treatment decision. Your doctors can’t make that decision for you. Neither can your family or friends. Staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper can also be a lonely feeling. Writing is a solitary activity.

5. Both have awesome communities. As I was putting in 12-hour days attending workshops and lectures and having conversations you’d have to be a poetry geek to get excited about, it occurred to me that I had found my tribe–again. I had many moments when my writing tribe reminded me of the sherpa tribe I’ve found in the breast cancer community.

The big difference is that MFA candidates are self-selected. We all want to be there. No one  volunteers to join the breast cancer community. But once you’re in it, you realize how wonderful it is and how much we help each other through.


12 thoughts on “What Do Chasing An MFA & Breast Cancer Have in Common?

  1. I seem to be able to make comparisons between breast cancer and just about anything and everything too. I love this piece, Jackie. All five of your points are so true. I hate that you and I (and anyone else), had a bc diagnosis, but since we did I’m glad our paths crossed in this amazing community. Good luck with your studies and finding that stillness too.

  2. Everything you write is “poetry” and it is always brings me a sense of calm whenever I read **whatever** you write. It’s a gift, Jackie and I am glad you are pursuing your passion to hone a skill… which, for whatever my opinion is worth…. is already PERFECT! I MEAN that.


  3. I’m happy you have found a positive path. The late age, ye age, not stage. The incessant never ending battle for dense breast notification.
    The never ending battle for alternate yet successful insurance approval. The unbelievable infighting, the jealous guarding of bureaucratic fiefdoms. The intense lobbying with massive amounts of money, the dishonesty in agendas. It so sucks, and it has sucked the coping skills right out of me. The white flag of surrender will be my shroud.

  4. I’ve been out of pocket for a few weeks, but am excited for you. Going for an MFA will charge your creative batteries, and yes, a blank screen or sheet of paper is always intimidating. Sometimes I wonder where my muse comes from and if it will show up, today. A very insecure feeling.


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