Powerful Poems Can Help You Live with Cancer

Patient Expert
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April is National Poetry Month, and I had the good fortune to start it off April 1-2, 2017 at the Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem North Carolina. Whether you have spent a lifetime avoiding poetry or loving it, you may not have thought of it as a gift to help you through cancer. Reading poetry can both take you away from suffering and help you through it. Writing poetry can give you a voice to express your pain and joys.

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Anya Silver reading her poems at a poetry reading April 1, 2017, Winston-Salem, North Carolina Credit: Phyllis Johnson

One of the poets leading workshops at the Gathering was Anya Silver, a friend whom I met in online cancer support groups. Our other common interests led to a long-distance friendship of more than a decade, and we were excited to meet for the first time at the Gathering.

All too often, we avoid poems because they may seem hard to understand, and they often use language differently than we do in our daily lives. Silver explains that we don’t need to understand a poem literally to comprehend its emotions. The sounds and rhythms work on us subconsciously. In our hurried lives, we don’t take the time to read out loud, and we can lose a poem’s essence.

Poetry can take us away from illness.

Maybe you, like I, were confused by some of the vocabulary and syntax in a poem you might have read in school, William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud.” But if you read that poem as an adult, or as an adult who has dealt with cancer, you will connect with the feeling of loneliness the poet starts with and the joyful surprise of seeing a field of daffodils, even if you don’t understand every word or phrase. The last stanza will remind you that even when you are lying on the sofa recovering from a day of chemo, you have wonderful memories that can fill your heart just as the memory of daffodils gives the poet pleasure.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

*Which is the bliss of solitude; *

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

If you let your imagination go to that field of yellow flowers, you can connect with some past joy in your life that can sustain you.

Poetry can help us explore the pain of cancer.

If reading from the Psalms in the Bible has been comforting you, you have been reading poetry. The psalmist isn’t afraid to pour out anger and fear using the poetic forms of ancient Hebrew.

Poems can take us into the depths of cancer. Silver writes about many topics, but as a Stage IV inflammatory cancer patient, she often chooses to write about cancer. In “Biopsy” (The Ninety-third Name of God) she describes a biopsy slide in religious terms, “the tissue staining the slide, God’s kaleidoscope.” In other poems, she writes about the deaths of her friends. She laments the terrible aspects of cancer and its occasional reprieves. In “After a Favorable Pet Scan” (From Nothing) she compares her gratitude for a good report with other pleasures.

Every fruit fills my mouth

with joy—these plums, cherries,

Juice after the drought—

Writing poems can be an outlet for our emotions.

Wordsworth describes poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” You can use writing poems to give those powerful feelings voice. Poems do not need to rhyme. In fact, most poets today choose to write without rhyme. If you have never written poems before, how can you get started?

  1. Make a word list. Just write a list of whatever words come to you. Don’t edit. Let one word lead to another. Maybe try some of these: cancer, healing, hope, fear, chemotherapy. Go back and circle the two or three words that strike the deepest chord in you. Then try them in phrases or sentences.

  2. Use your senses. Can you describe a concept by using similes for what it looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like? Try some unexpected combinations like Silver’s comparison of a biopsy slide to a kaleidoscope.

  3. Tell the story of an important instant. Don’t give the background; paint a word picture of the moment.

  4. Speak to an object or have an object speak its perspective. Create a dialogue.

What makes writing a poem different from expressing your feelings in a journal? Poetry is condensed. It expresses your feelings, but it also pares them down to the essentials. You cut out all the fluff, the extraneous.

As you play with the words in a poem, you search for the one word 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.

If you want to keep polishing your poem, you will think about how the words sound together. You will find rhythms that fit your meaning. You will arrange the lines to connect ideas in surprising ways.

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 a poem to my breast. 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.

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Anya Silver reading her poems at a poetry reading April 1, 2017, Winston-Salem, North Carolina Credit: Phyllis Johnson

This April — and year-round, too — read and write some poems. Give yourself the gift of powerful words.

See More Helpful Articles:

Anya Silver: Poet, Cancer Survivor, and So Much More

The Ninety-third Name of God by Anya Krugovoy Silver

I watched you disappear: poems by Anya Krugovoy Silver

From Nothing by Anya Krugovoy Silver


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)(c) 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.