Writing your Way Through Cancer Part III: Create a Poem

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • Maybe you're the one the office staff turns to for a tribute poem at the retirement banquet.  Maybe you write whole plays in rhyme for the children's program at church.  Maybe you haven't thought about poetry since the dreaded 8th grade poetry project.


    Whatever your past experience with poetry, try using it to help you through cancer.  Sure you can pour out your soul into a journal.  I'll write about the benefits of that another day.  But April is National Poetry Month, so consider the benefits of writing a poem.


    Poetry is short.  It lets you express your feelings, but it also pares them down to the essentials.  You cut out all the fluff, the extraneous. 

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    As you play with the words in a poem, you search for the one that says it best.  Do you mean angry, furious, or irritated?  Your finished poem captures your experience in a precise way that longer forms do not.


    Not sure how to get started?  Oncolink at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania has a section devoted to poetry and breast cancer.  One section offers "instant poem" templates to write your poem.


    Here is another instant poem format that uses the five senses to put an abstract into concrete terms.   Take a concept you want to write about like health, cancer, fear, or whatever.  Use the idea as the title of your poem.  Then write five lines that transform that abstract into specifics.




    Looks like . . .

    Smells like . . .

    Sounds like . . .

    Tastes like . . .

    Feels like . . .


    The first words and phrases that come to mind are often the best.  Don't worry about rhyme or rhythm.  Just say what's in your heart.  That's what I did for an unrhymed poem about losing my breast.


    I was very matter of fact about my mastectomy for a long time.  I thought that I just wanted the cancerous breast off.  After all how bad could it be?  But the night before my surgery, I wrote this poem.  It's hard to read the original copy because I was crying so hard that my tears blurred the ink.  Writing a goodbye poem to my breast released all the emotions I had been holding back.



    The Day Before Surgery


    This is the breast I covered with skimpy towels after gym class.

    This is the breast I never revealed with clothes too low or too tight.

    This is the breast I protected from groping hands.

    This is the breast I covered with lace and a silky midnight-blue slip.

    This is the breast I revealed when the time was right.

    This breast fed our children in the old rocker from the flea market.

    This breast grew soft and droopy, a comforting cushion for hugs.

    This breast gave me pain-cysts, calcifications, biopsies.

    This breast gave me pleasure-erotic, sensual, electric.

    This breast harbors death.

    I will lose this breast tomorrow.

    I will miss my breast, but

    I will live.


    June 24, 1998



    I arrived at surgery the next day emotionally ready to do what needed to be done.


    If you're not quite ready to try writing your own poem, celebrate National Poetry Month by reading some poems.  The Oncolink site has poems on many topics related to cancer. You'll probably find one that puts into words what you've been feeling or that offers a new perspective on your situation.  Two general poetry sites you might like to explore are www.favoritepoem.org and www.poets.org.


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    Share a poem you've written this month here in the comments section or as a share post.  If you find a great site for cancer-related poetry, write in and tell us.  Celebrate National Poetry Month.



Published On: March 31, 2009