Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Over her shoulder

Recently a woman who had bought a copy of my series poem Peeling Onions came up to me at an event and said she didn't know whether to give it to her friend who was living with breast cancer as, "she just seems to have thrown cancer over her shoulder".

I didn't really know what to say to her, though I did privately wonder if she had actually asked the woman concerned if this is how she truly how felt.

I don't really talk about the disease that much myself these days, except when check ups/anniversaries come around, or to my two cancer buddies N & M, who both know what I'm talking about. But a couple of weeks ago I read an interview with Sarah Gabriel whose book Eating Pomegranates deals with "surviving" BRCA breast cancer (and yes there are several different kinds of the disease).

I want to quote this bit of the full interview, which is available on the clickable link, as it comes close to expressing my own experience with mood while in treatment:

"The volatility of mood that can come with cancer is not really talked about. I don't think I've done a very good job at being honest about that.

I tell her I think the truth is quite to the contrary. I stop short of saying that her caustic rage described in the book led to me dreading our meeting, and unsure about whether to meet her illness with hesitant delicacy or matter-of-fact acceptance.

Both approaches anger her at various points on the page. Sometimes it is a look from another mother on the school run - either real or imagined. Sometimes it is an attempt to chivvy her into optimism: "Be positive!" "Everything will be OK!" There are some shocking comments; for instance, from the woman who says that Gabriel's cancer might have been caused by the stress of deadlines (Gabriel is a freelance journalist) or the Jungian who talks about the "cancer personality". All in all, save for the kindly band of mothers who cooked for her and looked after her children, society as a whole comes across as pretty lacking: "Until going through it myself, I would have belonged to that wounding tribe of people I describe in my book who would have tried to be kind but have actually been in flight," she says (my emphasis). "Why is cancer still so scary, compared with heart disease or a broken leg? Why can we still not ask straightforward questions about it, and handle it, like other illnesses?"

Last night I found this poem, by Marilyn Hacker, in a book lent to me by a poet friend, and it goes out to all those I know who have come through the experience of cancer, even those who appear to have thrown it over the shoulder. Personally the only thing I ever throw over my shoulder is pointless regret and my prosthesis of an evening. (BTW a mastectomy bra is a great place to keep your i-pod, or camera lens cover and filters )


This is for Elsa, also known as Liz,
an ample-bosomed gospel singer: five
discrete malignancies in one full breast.
This is for auburn Jacqueline, who is
celebrating fifty years alive,
one since she finished chemotherapy.
with fireworks on the fifteenth of July.
This is for June, whose words are lean and mean
as she is, elucidating our protest.
This is for Lucille, who shines a wide
beam for us with her dark cadences.
This is for long-limbed Maxine, astride
a horse like conscience. This is for Aline
who taught her lover how to caress the scar.
This is for Eve, who thought of AZT
while hopeful poisons pumped into a vein.
This is for Nanette in the Midwest.
This is for Alicia, shaking back dark hair,
dancing one-breasted with the Sabbath bride.
This is for Judy on a mountainside,
plunging her gloved hands in a glistening hive.
Hilda, Patricia, Gaylord, Emilienne,
Tania, Eunice: this is for everyone
who marks the distance on a calendar
from what's less likely each year to "recur."
Our saved-for-now lives are life sentences
- which we prefer to the alternative.


Blogger BarbaraS said...

Neither approach - tactful or direct - is easy to take, and I think it's simply down to the fact that those who've not stared down the barrel of the cancer gun as say you have, maybe we just don't get the awfulness of the diagnosis, or the treatment. No doubt it is harrowing. I have an inkling that the reason we non-c people shirk talking about or acknowledging other people's feelings about cancer, is that it's such a mortal shock to the system - you can't avoid mortality when you mention cancer.

I thought this was a very well-balanced thoughfully written post, A, voicing the doubts very well.

2:44 pm  
Anonymous rouchswalwe said...

A very good friend succumbed to breast cancer in January '05. The rages were tough on both of us, but we weathered the gale-force storms together somehow. She called it the vacuum disease, because it constantly worked to suck out not only her strength but the strength of those around her, too. Watching someone you love be that strong isn't an easy thing to do.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Kay said...

I hope I'd be one of the ones to bake / cook and help look after the kids. But who knows what one will do in any situation? All we can do is hope that we'd do the right thing. I really appreciate your searing honesty.

10:19 am  
Blogger apprentice said...

Thanks for this all, the thing has been buzzing in my head for weeks.
I know you'd all be casserole makers, that why I like you!

R your friend was right,it is hard to re-engage with "normal" life, you always feel a little cut off and when you do you drive yourself crazy when you find yourself sweating the small again. But I'm sure you and I could share a beer :)

11:21 am  
Blogger Rouchswalwe said...

Oh yes, Anna. Definitely!

12:06 am  

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