Anya Silver has been an inspiration to me since I first got to know her on-line when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. In the support groups we are members of, she shares her experiences with courage, humor, and honesty. You may have also met her and her husband Andrew in a HealthCentral video about finding out she had inflammatory breast cancer while she was pregnant.
She is also a poet whose book The Ninety-Third Name of God includes many poems about cancer. Because writing and reading poetry is a great way understand all the emotions that swirl around breast cancer, I recently asked her if she would talk about her experience with cancer, share how poetry helps her cope, and offer some tips for our readers.
I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004 while pregnant with my son, Noah. After treatment, I enjoyed remission for five and a half years, but was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2010. I currently have small tumors in my sternum and cancerous nodules in my lungs. My treatment right now consists of the new HER2+ drug TDM1 (Kadcyla) and an aromasin inhibitor, Aromatise. Treatment has not eliminated the cancer, but it has remained relatively stable.
I started writing poetry in high school, and I’ve always considered myself a poet, but it wasn’t until I developed cancer that I found a subject that, ironically, made my writing better.
Poetry has been essential to helping me cope with having cancer. Most obviously, it’s therapeutic to confront and write about my fears of illness and dying. Doing so helps release my anxiety and gives me a sense of control over my life. But more deeply, writing about cancer gives me a vocation, a purpose for my life. From this terrible disease, I can create art and communicate my experiences with others.
There’s a poet named Jason Shinder whose collection of poetry, Stupid Hope, was published after he died of cancer. To my mind, nobody has written better poems about cancer than he did. They are unflinching but also true to the fact that those of us with advanced cancer continue to live lives that go beyond simply being cancer patients.
More broadly, I like poetry that wrestles with the really important questions of life, such as how one lives a meaningful life, how one copes with suffering and death, and what role love and faith play in life. Poets whom I love and turn to again and again include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Akhmatova, Louise GlÅ±ck, and Carolyn ForchÃ©.
If someone is writing therapeutically, in other words, to help get herself get through treatment or post-treatment, then I would encourage her to simply write what she feels, without self-censorship, and without even worrying about whether her poetry is "good" or not. I would encourage such a person to be as honest, brave and precise as possible, to force herself to face feelings and possibilities that she might not want to face, such as the fear of recurrence or progression. As Ezra Pound said, avoid generalities.
If someone wants to write poetry that is excellent as poetry, as a craft, then I would tell her to read all the poetry she can get her hands on. Read, read, read old poets and new. Start at the beginning of the Norton Anthology of Poetry and read it straight through. Find poets whom she really admires and use him/her as models of craft. I would also encourage her to find a friend or two with whom to share her writing so that she can get criticism and support of her own work in order to improve it.
This is a poem that was published in my book The Ninety-Third Name of God (Louisiana University Press, 2010):
I place you by my window so your skin can receive the setting sun,
so your flesh will yield to succulence, lush with juice,
so the saints of autumn will bless your flaming fruit.
Because cancer has left me tired.
Because when I visit God’s houses, I enter and leave alone.
Not even in the melting beeswax and swinging musk of incense
has God visited me, not when I’ve bowed or kneeled or sung.
Because I have found God, instead, when I’ve crouched in bathrooms,
lain back for the burning of my skin, covered my face and cursed.
Persimmon: votive candle at the icon of my kitchen window,
your four-petaled stem the eye of God in the Temple’s dome,
tabernacle of pulp and seed,
dwelling place for my wandering prayers,
I am learning from you how to praise.
Because when your body bruises and softens, you are perfected.
Because your soul, persimmon, is sugar.
You can order Anya’s book The Ninety-Third Name of God, from Amazon. I am eagerly awaiting her second book, I Watched Her Disappear, which will be available in Spring 2014. Reading poetry like Anya’s gives us fresh ways to think about cancer. Writing our own poems can help clarify our fears and hopes.
Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) survivor diagnosed in 1998. She has written about cancer for HealthCentral since 2007. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)© organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. Phyllis attends conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. She tweets at @mrsphjohnson.