Duck ‘Til Carcinoma may seem too clever of a title for a book about a serious subject like breast cancer. Please understand that this book is not meant to make light of the breast cancer experience. Breast cancer is truly a journey of a woman’s body and soul, and my original poetry shared in this book was written while I was personally feeling all the anguish of this profound transformation. It is my hope that the inspiration shared through my poetry will generate enlightened thoughts and feelings, and help those diagnosed with breast cancer to reflect on the incredible journey of navigating the rocks and rapids that are encountered in this intense process.
I have navigated the various phases of the breast cancer experience as though I have been in a kayak, and I have been launched down a river with swirling, violent rapids. I am hanging on for dear life and “ducking” to avoid being consumed by the intense power of the rapids of carcinoma. I am gripping a paddle, and one side of the paddle is “medical,” and the other side is “wholistic.” I firmly feel that both are very important in dealing with breast cancer, and I found myself constantly alternating one side of the paddle in the water, and then the other. As I bounce down rushing rapids, the kayak approaches a number of huge boulders. These boulders are the chapters of Diagnosis, Decisions, Local Control, Adjuvant Therapy, and the wild ride ending by sailing over a waterfall into the peaceful lagoon of the cancer Alumni.
The poem Duck ‘Til Carcinoma relates to the shock of life before and after the breast cancer diagnosis. Many of us go along for years, “ducking” from issues to create a sense of comfortable complacency. Suddenly, with the diagnosis of breast cancer, we can “ duck” no more, and must face every part of our true Self. Breast cancer forces us to discard part of ourselves, and the past, as we hang on for dear life and ride the kayak of challenges in a profound, transforming present. The poem Kayak is designed to show how our life is like different kinds of boats, but the kayak is my best metaphor for life in the breast cancer journey.
I came across this simple yet profound insight in the early stages of my breast cancer diagnosis: “Once you’ve found it, you’ve got it.” There is so much emphasis related to detecting breast cancer with self-examination and mammograms, that women become intensely fearful about looking for what they are terrified they will find. Having been through that experience, I also felt what it was like to move to the other side of fear, and to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
The technology used for diagnosis was, in itself, a profound experience. Suddenly there were recorded in pictures my breast and its insidious disease. There is an old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and, I can say from experience, that the film evidence of diagnosis leaves one speechless. I have put into intense poetic expression the significant meaning of the Mammogram and the Ultra-Sound. The mammogram is portrayed as such a daunting experience, that I also wrote a fun, uplifting poem that talks about the upside of the mammogram. It is called Mammogramma.
Many of the women who may read this book will fortunately be dealing with an earlier stage cancer that can be resolved with a breast conserving procedure. I was not so lucky. I had the more extensive opportunity to experience all the potential steps in the breast cancer process, included the dreaded mastectomy. The two poems, Films and Radiology Reading sadly express my experience of loss. I’m certain lumpectomy patients will also identify with their own sense of loss. In a way, my poems are also inspiring, as they show the grief that I felt, and yet they also portray how I was able to move beyond the profound loss. I hope my honesty in these poems helps women to see that there is a life beyond lumpectomy and mastectomy.
Once you are diagnosed with breast cancer, the decisions become overwhelming. First, there is the decision of how you are emotionally going to handle the identity of having cancer. Suddenly people look at your differently. It’s hard to have people crying when they see you. You become numb, and still just want to be who you were. The poems Cancer and Label both put into words the feelings of that profound identity crisis.
Then there are significant decisions related to the local control aspects of biopsy, surgery, and lymph node dissection. These are paralleled with the adjuvant therapy decisions of chemotherapy and radiation. If there is a mastectomy, a woman must suddenly also make an informed decision regarding reconstruction. Then there are decisions related to a second opinion for the various aspects of treatment. All these medical decisions are gut-wrenching as they emotionally and spiritually connect with a woman’s soul.
Once I faced the reality of surgery, I found myself feeling like I was being swept off my feet by a whirlwind of decisions. The surgeon did explain that breast cancer is generally slow growing, and that I could take a little time with my decision. Take time! A day, a week…what should I do? I had received the dreadful biopsy results just two weeks before we were to travel overseas on a scheduled vacation to a special Swiss mountain resort in the valley of the famous Matterhorn mountain. I had been visiting the village of Zermatt, Switzerland yearly as my personal spiritual pilgrimage. I agonized over canceling the trip and scheduling the surgery, and listened to my heart for the answer. My heart told me that God was calling me to the mountain first, and that I would find spiritual direction there. I was drained and needed to be strong for the surgery, so I went to the mountain first, to connect with God and gain my strength. The overseas trip delayed the surgery date approximately ten days, and it was one of the best decisions I made in the breast cancer process. This is expressed in the poem I Went To the Mountain.
During the time in Zermatt, I hired a Swiss guide who became a living lesson in how God takes care of me. He accompanied me on a treacherous hike, and he kept calmly repeating, Give Me Your Hand and Walk Like An Elephant. His guidance became my imagery of the entire healing process of the breast cancer journey. I would walk slowly and surely like an elephant, and know that God was guiding every step of my difficult path through the people he sent to help me along the way. The guide was the image of God’s hand in caring for me. It set the stage for me to trust each additional hand that supported me through all the decisions regarding my treatment, as well as my emotional healing.
Local control is the term that is used to describe the surgical procedures related to removing the breast cancer tumor and lymph nodes. This also includes a procedure called “Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy,” in which radioactive dye is injected, and there is a mapping of the pathway from the breastto the sentinel lymph nodes. Sentinel lymph nodes can then be removed first, and, if they are negative, there is no need for additional lymph node removal. The sentinel lymph node procedure, mammogram, and insertion of a guide wire for surgery made me truly feel “All Wired Up” by the time I was wheeled into the operating room for my first lumpectomy surgery.
In order to create an appropriate supportive atmosphere for myself in surgery, I had requested that music be played, and I had selected the lovely music from the soundtrack of the movie “Rudy. ” I had read that a person still can hear during anesthesia, and I wanted my spirit to be uplifted during the surgical procedure. I describe that very positive empowering experience in the poem “Anesthesia Serenade.” My surgeon was wonderful, and fully cooperated and seemed to understand the positive meaning of my request. My surgeon listened with compassion to the anguish with which I approached and surrendered to both surgeries and, like the Swiss mountain guide, he walked like an elephant in the way he guided me to slowly but surely proceed with the necessary and painful surgery decisions. I wrote the poem “Hero” to recall how my surgeon had become another hand of God, like the mountain guide, who had coached me to “Walk like an elephant” to climb the challenging mountain path.
The second mastectomy surgery was extremely difficult for me to accept, and it was through a synchronistic recommendation that I was connected with Deena Metzger’s book and poster called “Tree.” Deena’s powerful image of a woman with a mastectomy scar covered with a tattoo of a tree branch became the most significant way for me to visually look at my second surgery as a powerful experience of my own female transformation. This mastectomy experience is expressed through the poem “Tree.”
During the long waiting time of the first surgery, my adult son wrote a poem that expressed his anguish at seeing his mom go through breast cancer surgery. His feelings are profoundly expressed in the poem “Rising Son…”
Adjuvant therapy refers to the therapeutic cancer treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. I again had the opportunity to experience both of these treatments. Throughout the course of the breast cancer experience, I was determined to stay very positive, and I did everything I could to integrate positive thinking and visualization to eradicate the cancer from my body. One of the most helpful visualizations I created for myself was the image of Melted Ice as a way to see the cancer tumor and cells evaporating into thin air. I also used the experience of playing racquetball by myself, and night after night hitting the ball against the wall as a visualization of destroying cancel cells. That proactive strategy is expressed in the poem Having A Ball.
I had a very difficult time surrendering to the process of chemotherapy. I was especially frightened to learn that one of the chemo drugs prescribed for me can have the side effect of damage to the heart. I was relieved to have the MUGA test available to assure me that my heart would be protected. The poem Chemotherapy was written the morning right before I went in for my first chemo treatment, and it poignantly shows the anguish I was feeling at surrendering to this dreaded process. After having become accustomed to the chemo process, I wrote the poem Chemo as a way to keep my sense of humor, while fully integrating the profound meaning of this very serious experience.
The chemotherapy regimen prescribed for me was Adriamycin and Cytoxin, or AC, which practically guarantees loss of hair. The hair loss was the worst part of the breast cancer experience for me. I had always had long brown hair, and now I was not only losing my treasured hair, but I felt like my identity was being ripped away from me. The loss of hair was expected to begin on day 14 after the first chemo treatment, and on days 11 through 13, I literally anguished and wrote the most sorrowful poetry to deal with the grief and humiliation at the loss of my hair. The poem A Head of the Game deals with my decision to accept the chemo treatment even though I knew it would lead to the hair loss. Long Tresses talks about what my long hair has meant to me all my life. The poem Armageddon portrays the depth of devastation I felt at the prospect of losing my beloved long hair and accepting the reality of impending baldness.
In the process of radiation therapy, I again had to surrender my total being to the reality of my body being bombarded with dreaded radiation. The poem Radiant Beauty shares my acceptance of the process. I had read that the lead chamber for radiation therapy was quite ominous, but the Lead Vault in my hospital was actually a rather pleasant cloister. Lying on the table day after day made me feel like I was a Grocery Sack.
It was rather ironic that I had been at a point in my life where I was struggling with my higher purpose. I had completed my doctorate in the spring of 2000, and had become committed to cross-cultural understanding through the completion of an extensive international dissertation research project that had connected me with over 20 universities in ten countries. My dissertation was dedicated to World Peace and Cross-Cultural Understanding.
With the profound tragedy of September 11th, 2001, I was stunned and paralyzed as to what one person could do to contribute to peace in this increasingly hostile world. At the time of September 11th, I wrote the poem Powerful Woman and sent it out on the INTERNET as my personal plea for world peace. I also attended at that time a workshop called “Journey of Spiritual Transformation. ” The activities from the day involved soul-searching and the formation of my personal mission statement: To reflect on the world, discover clever alternatives, and work with visionaries to create Peace. How ironic that exactly nine months after the creation of my mission statement, my goal emerged from a pregnant incubation, and was born through my diagnosis of breast cancer! It seems profound to think that this cancer experience and writing this book are part of my path leading to fulfillment of my mission statement. It seems as though cancer may have transformed me into one of the powerful women that I tenaciously called forth at the time of September 11th to help the world find a way to peace through feminine power.
I have chosen to call myself a cancer alumna (female singular of alumni) rather than use the term cancer survivor. The term survivor seems too passive for me, and throughout the breast cancer process, I have been learning, working, battling cancer, with a level of tenacity that has made the memory of my doctoral dissertation seem easy in comparison. I may have had breast cancer, but breast cancer never had me. There is nothing I have done in my life that comes near to drawing on the courage I have used to deal with breast cancer. The poem Anguish provides some level of insight into the emotional struggle. Hair Extension addresses the profound challenge to my identity. Trans Am and Rear View Mirror are parallel poems that provide insight into how I used the metaphor of my powerful sports car as my emotional therapy in connecting with my own personal power to beat breast cancer. The poem Sampson shares how I have cleverly adjusted to my mastectomy, and was still able to maintain my sense of humor.
Once cancer was behind me, and I had celebrated the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I began to reflect more deeply on the profound experience of breast cancer. It had involved seven long months of wearing a wig, before I finally had enough hair to appear in public with my very short haircut. My hair had grown back with lovely varied shades of dark brown, and the hair was Curly! I began saying to everyone that “God is my hairdresser.” The poem Fog was written as a direct experience of driving in a thick fog one early spring morning off the coast of South Carolina. The terrifying experience of driving with my hands tightly gripping the steering wheel crystallized what my life had been like through the year of cancer. Likewise, the direct experience of Waiting over an hour before takeoff on a airline flight made me aware of how cancer puts one’s life in a holding pattern. The poem Backwards was written as I was traveling on a train and reflecting back over a most profound year.
I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis by returning to Zermatt, Switzerland, where I felt God’s inspiration delivered to me as I watched the sun set on the Matterhorn. The poems You Came to Me and I Understand express that spiritual inspiration. The final poem I Have Been Healed was actually written in Zermatt before my first surgery, and it expressed the faith in healing that I had from the time of diagnosis, and that healing has now been transformed into the message that I share personally with my breast cancer alumni! Finally, “How Sweet It Is” reflects the endearing gratitude and admiration toward my medical oncologist.
A final excerpt from the book is the poem I Understand