Cancer Poems

In the fall of 2003 I organized a reading at The Writers Place in Kansas City titled Women, Interrupted: An Evening of Poetry and Music in Honor of Cancer Survivors and Loved Ones Lost.

At the time I had no cancer poems of my own, so I went on the prowl. I’d find a poem I liked, and then I’d dig deeper and discover the poet had died. The poignancy was often heightened by saber-rattling on page after page that declared victory over the scourge of cancer. But — as happens all too often — cancer would get the last word.

These poems vary in tone and style, but they all have something that caught me.

• • • • •


• • • • •

Letters Received
by Denise Larrabee

You are in my thoughts
are with you are part of
the prayer chain at our
church will say a mass
for you accept all
prayers on your behalf we
will say a rosary for you
tonight lots of people
are calmly, psychically
cheering you on Sunday
will light a candle for
you are in our thoughts
and prayers are being
said for you need all the
health karma there is a
candle lit for you in
front of my Madonna has a
special place for young
women in trouble require
positive and healthy
energy to kiss someone
you love when you get
this letter and make

# # #

The Comfort of Wood
By Naomi Shihab Nye

I come to this table tired
I come empty as a cup
a fruit bowl with no bananas

I come with my various resources
dragging behind me
a cat’s wet tail

I come to this table with no song
no definite opinion like garlic or onion
flavoring the stew

The table is sitting where it always sits
braided placemats
in front of each chair

I found the table at a store called
“The Hand and the Heart”
I was not looking for tables

The table sat in the center of the room
leaves like wings folded at its sides
a single drawer with a runner that stuck

Now I am learning the comfort of wood
as I place my head on the table
as I fold my hands over the scars

# # #

At the Cancer Clinic
by Ted Kooser

She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

# # #

The Dead
by Inta Ezergailis

Under the snows
and the years
they all lie,
getting lighter
in the earth
but heavier in me
until I feel a pull
a sudden change
gentle but demonstrable
in time and mode,
as the scale drops
and they fill out
with a life, a flush
that drains from me
and my affairs
they do not claim me yet
but I know, somehow,
the weight has shifted.

# # #

Handmaiden of All I Survey
by breast-cancer survivor Debbie C.

I am in charge of piled papers like towers.
Archaeological digs of
mail, newspapers, circulars.
Rearranged ad infinitum.
Breeding in slippery stacks on the kitchen counter.
I am in charge of molehills
and the corpses of small dead insects
that reside in the cracks of the kitchen floor
rustling like paper when the wind blows.
Of the red paint in the cupboard
and the bowl of fruit that stands on the kitchen table
sweating honey-flavored dew.
I am in charge of the photos
hanging on the wall
in the darkness of the hallway
of dead relatives and old dogs.
And the one of a girl child
dressed in a white sailor suit and a pout.
Bought from the junk man
because I coveted the oxblood frame
and her butter soft curls.
I am in charge of shoes with black buttons
and blue glass bottles
old holders of vile medicine
now sitting triumphantly on the window ledge
gloating at their good fortune.
I am in charge of the plant in the corner
with the name I forget.
Arrow shaped leaves
brown and curling at the tips.
It is slowly dying
for reasons I can not fathom.

• • • • •


• • • • •

Illness Is
by Anne Silver

a finger crooked:
there’s a table set for one.

# # #

It’s a Stick-Up
by Anne Silver

Imagine you’re held up,
a gun grinds its hollow dowel
into your spinal rack,
Now start handing over.
Hand over your rings for starts.
Watch, tobacco, Ben Franklins,
overcoat and loafers – hand them
over like a housewife on Hallowe’en
tosses Tootsie Rolls into a sack.
Now open a vein and drain
your river of red into the whiskey glass.
Crow bar your ribs, rip and hand over
whatever heart you have left
after this lifetime of love’s petty crimes.
Now you’re ready to hand over
your hands – those tools that had you
breaking into the wrong doors
your whole life – for livelihood,
for kisses, for dry crusts to gnaw,
and when you get to heaven or
wherever, don’t be surprised
at the gatekeeper’s bored expression:
everybody says they’ve just been robbed.

# # #

I’m Becoming More Forgetful
by Jane Levin

I am becoming more forgetful.
Friends laugh
tell stories about
misplaced keys
forgotten names.
A few gently ask if chemo did this to me.
My doctor refers me for an MRI.
You don’t understand.
For just one moment
I forgot that I
have/had/may have

I have become a magician
watching in amazement
as fear disappears.
Sounds of audible delight escape
as the faint outline
of hope
and as hope takes shape
remembering begins.

# # #

How to Stay Alive
by Judith Strasser

Trash your cigarettes. Shun restaurants and bars
that traffic in second-hand smoke. Eat organic
and low on the food chain. Steam vegetables;
don’t grill meat. Just say “no” to marijuana, Jack
Daniels, and cocaine. Stay home: do not rent cars
at Miami’s airport, or ride the New York subways,
or dig potshards in the Negev after massacres
in Hebron. Don’t drive vans older than you are
to places you’ve never been. Always buckle your
seat belt. Have someone else strip the asbestos
from your furnace and heating pipes. Test for radon
in the basement, lead in the drinking water, cracks
in the microwave shield. Avoid electric blankets.
Use condoms, or don’t have sex. Walk to work.
Remember your sunblock. Don’t go jogging after dark.
Keep off the neighbors’ grass after they’ve sprayed
the yard. Wear a helmet when you bike. Take
a buddy to the lake. Don’t lie about your weight
to the man who adjusts your skis. Lower stress
with yoga; divorce your husband if you must. Cross
your fingers, say “Star Bright” to Venus, avoid
black cats, spit three times over your shoulder
on your thirteenth annual visit to the oncologist.

# # #

by Sandra Lovegrove
Hurtling unprepared through frozen air,
Propelled in unrestrained and undirected flight,
The ice-rope slithers through the hand,
A momentary grasp,
No crampons to give grip.
No way to know if it is going to be
A gentle slope or headlong slippery slide;
No way to know how long it lasts
Nor how it all will end,
The only certainty that once begun
There can be no return
To that clear and firm plateau
Where others walk, unknowing
The ravening crevasse beckoning below.

Some find the precipice and peer
To watch the downward feared career,
And wonder how it feels to fall so far.
They cannot hear the falling calls,
The breath choked in the throat,
Nor feel the loss of ground beneath the feet.
There’s no exhilaration in the slide,
The slick and sickening helter-skelter ride:
The waking sleeper’s horror finding nightmare real
Only knows the terror of the fall.

# # #

by Sandra Steingraber

I am often unsure
how to begin

as a bird who
holds in her mouth
the first twigs
of a new nest

and not far below
the gray cat
in the full sun

# # #

A Busy Day for Life and Death
by Jeff McCallum

It was a busy day for life and death
two pages behind
one on the phone
the two of us in the tiny office
the beeper calling insistently
a monitor malfunctioning
I thought
wondering if we should leave the room
wondering if this moment reminded my medical oncologist
of residency
wondering how much we should hear
There were snippets of strategy
tiny forebears of tragedy
medial static caking
something growing almost as rapidly as the Big Bang
a condition radiation would not help
a cut in chemo dosage
and then

then he turned
and gave us his full attention
Explained every nuance of the CT scan
each possibility for the future
it was as though the rest were behind him
or waiting
for me

• • • • •


• • • • •

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

# # #

Fully Punctuated
by Jane Levin
hope is a dangling participle
grammatical error/broken

You have cancer

hope is a comma,
another breath,
another day, more

hope is a semi-colon;
between what
may be


# # #

Peak Performance
by Mandy Blumenshine

Sixteen, driving, friends, fun, life guarding, swim team, prom, limp, ouch, physical therapy, x-ray, leg, tumor, brace, crutches, Denver, life threatening, limb salvage, amputation, death, life, what, scared, biopsy, pathology doctors, nurses, Broviac, blood, drugs, bone scan, CAT scan, MRI, stop, enough, fear family, support, waiting, results, why, oncologist, osteogenicsarcoma, protocol, photographer, Katy, pictures, chemotherapy, Adriamyacin, Cisplatin, vomit, sick, blonde, hair loss, bald, cry, attitude, hats, scarves, pediatrics, third floor, new friends, Jason, Marco, Jovannah, surgery, four hours, 100% tumor kill, wake up, pain, good news, save leg, total knee replacement, scar, recovery, healing, no crutches, no brace, two legs, two feet, standing, walking, chemo finished, alive, growing hair, high school, graduation, college, pre-med, doctor, me, healthy, life guarding, friends, fun, eighteen. I am a survivor of cancer.

# # #

Better to Give
by Jeff McCallum

Patients bring us gifts all the time
the RN in medical oncology remarked
I wish they wouldn’t
It is we who should be giving them gifts
You are
I said

# # #

A Dark Thing Inside the Day
by Linda Gregg

So many want to be lifted by song and dancing,
and this morning it is easy to understand.
I write in the sound of chirping birds hidden
in the almond trees, the almonds still green
and thriving in the foliage. Up the street,
a man is hammering to make a new house as doves
continue their cooing forever. Bees humming
and high above that a brilliant clear sky.
The roses are blooming and I smell the sweetness.
Everything desirable is here already in abundance.
And the sea. The dark thing is hardly visible
in the leaves, under the sheen. We sleep easily.
So I bring no sad stories to warn the heart.
All the flowers are adult this year. The good
world gives and the white doves praise all of it.

• • • • •


• • • • •

The anthology The Cancer Poetry Project, edited by Karin B. Miller, was invaluable to me when I was cpp16kbplanning Women, Interrupted.

Another helpful resource was the mother lode of online cancer poetry Oncolink, which is sponsored by the Abramson Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

A whole page of breast cancer poems are posted here along with an introduction by Oncolink’s poet-in-residence, the phenomenal Alysa Cummings.

Cummings wrote the sharp-edged Breast Cancer Support Meeting Tonight & Refreshments Will Be Served and That Lucky Guy Sonnet.

Several more poems by Cummings can be found here.

And while you’re at it, check out Alysa’s essay Seeing Red: Cancer and Anger, in Poems and Pictures.

• • • • •


• • • • •

Perhaps the most heart-breaking cancer poem I’ve read is Living With Cancer by Johanna Shapiro.

Shapiro’s poem was the first one on the docket at Women, Interrupted. I asked local actress Betsy Robbins to read it. I could offer no money, but even so, Robbins, a newly-diagnosed survivor of cancer of the appendix, accepted.

I remember feeling a little envious of Betsy back then. Not only had she kept her hair — her treatment was surgery alone — but she had survival statistics that would make any cancer survivor swoon.

Even so, three years later I found myself writing a memorial tribute to Betsy Robbins in the local paper:

While I appreciated the overwhelming support for Women, Interrupted from the writing community, I was especially touched by Betsy’s participation. As an Equity actress, her time was money.

Before the event, she told me her rehearsals of “Living With Cancer” were going well except that she was having trouble getting to the end without crying. I assured her that at a cancer reading, a few tears would be all right.

Not good enough for an actress of Betsy’s caliber. You stay in character, no matter what.

At Women, Interrupted, Betsy stood at the podium of the Writers Place, her head full of hair, her skin full of color and (for all we knew) many years ahead of her. I thought I saw her eyes glistening by the end of the poem, but she was entitled.

Bravo to Johanna Shapiro for writing the poem. Bravo to her friend for inspiring it. And bravo to Betsy.

# # #

On Reading Poems by Women With Breast Cancer by Glen Downie

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon

Dragonfly Rescue (a valentine to oncologists) and Moonsets by Patricia Fontaine

One Hundred and Ten Days by Julie Moulds

Isaac Stern’s Performance by Hilda Raz

The Meaning of Figs and Geography by Kelli Russell Agodon

Getting Well by Jean Trounstine

How to Live in the Continual Present by Sarah Sutro

The Rapid River by Lisa Flaxman, a young mother who recently died of breast cancer. Her book Glances at Time is available on the website of the company Flaxman founded,

Pulling the Trigger by oncologist Frank L. Meyskens, Jr.

Then there’s my own poem from the Helicon Nine anthology Chance of a Ghost The Oncologist and Her Ghosts

• • • • •


• • • • •

All poems posted with kind permission of the authors except as noted.

Peak Performance by Mandy Blumenshine won first prize over thousands of entries in a Seventeen magazine contest.*

Handmaiden of All I Survey by Debbie C. was posted on a public breast cancer discussion board.*

Inta Ezergailis was a professor of German Studies at Cornell University. She died in 2005.*

The Dark Thing Inside the Day by Linda Gregg was first published in American Poetry Review and was later reprinted in Gregg’s book The Sacraments of Desire, Graywolf Press. Though not specifically about cancer, for me this poem was a signpost in the fog.*

Former poet laureate Ted Kooser teaches and writes in Nebraska. His 2004 book Delights and Shadows won the Pulitzer Prize. For years he worked in the insurance industry.

“Letters Received” by Denise Larrabee was published in The Cancer Poetry Project, edited by Karin B. Miller.*

Jane Levin is a retired psychologist. She was interviewed by Words & Tricks last April. Levin is a 9-year survivor of stage IIIc ovarian cancer. “Fully Puncutated” first appeared in Flutter Poetry Journal. “I’m Becoming More Forgetful” was published in Coping With Cancer, Sept./Oct. 2006 and in Levin’s chapbook Legacy. She lives in Minnesota and can be reached at moonflowerpress at gmail dot com.

Sandra Lovegrove died of breast cancer in 2006. She finished “Freefall” a few weeks before she died, and her husband read the poem at her funeral.

Jeff McCallum is the author of Somebody’s Bright Balloon, a collection of poems about and for cancer patients, caregivers and health professionals. McCallum lives in Minneapolis, where he works as a commercial building contractor. In his free time he’s involved in theater, activism and writing as therapy.

“The Comfort of Wood” by San Antonio writer Naomi Shihab Nye appeared in her first collection of poetry. The poem is not about cancer, but I read it at my father’s funeral in 2000, and no doubt someone will someday read it at mine.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver is published in Dream Work from Atlantic Monthly Press.

Anne Silver was a handwriting expert who often testified in courtrooms. She died of breast cancer in 2005 at the age of 54.*

“Prefatory” by Sandra Steingraber was first published in Post-diagnosis in 1995. She holds a doctorate in biology.*

“How to Stay Alive” by Judith Strasser was first published in Prairie Schooner in 1995 and was later anthologized in The Cancer Poetry Project. She blogs.

*All these poems were online. I try to get permission to post them, but I don’t always get a reply. I intend only to call attention to poetry I admire. If any poet featured here would like to be removed, please email me at donnatrussell@gmail dot com, and I will comply.