Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Cancer Chronicles

I kept a journal during my 13 months of treatment, and wrote it up as book, hoping to help other women on the long breast cancer journey. I sent the manuscript to a few publishers, who were all very complementary about it, but said I needed a hook to sell it, like being a celeb, or following a special diet, or alternative therapies. So I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the whole thing as a series of very short haiku that boiled the whole experience down to its essence, making it a more universal and accessible experience. I thought I would post them here.

UPDATE: The poem has now been published and you can buy a lovely bound copy here .

I've called the series Peeling Onions

First layer

something others did
till now

ring crushed fingers
and a pain so intimate
it stays the heart

doctor speaks, and
timber - my tree
comes crashing down

small word
two syllables
tropic of…

bad news, cold
and heavy as a
sodden blanket

small talk - children? how many?
tongue’s too tied to answer

pale and wan
he stays, watching this
no greater gift

bruised, biopsied
squashed flat
picture it

surely some mistake
surely some mistake
surely some mistake

I’m over here
can see and hear you
but there’s no way back

child, child, my child
loved, protected, planned for
how to tell you?

boobs, breasts
less is more?

peace of mind
mind’s in pieces

incidence is higher
in the left
a middle-aged fact

swallowed the spider to catch the …..
breast from back muscle?
thanks, but no thanks

phone rings off the hook
the jungle drums
at work

shock, denial, rage, acceptance
cornered here at zero
between x and y

run pity’s gauntlet
through lunchtime
canteen tables

can function here
know what’s expected
so no, I won’t go home

keyed in question
stranger, “sister”, survivor -
tell me what’s it like?

shuffle a list
of Desert Island Discs
into Cracking Cremmie Choices

shop for
hospital things find
her looking at the bras

my sister says “it’s not so bad,
he loves you” - the subtext
as ever is “you’ve got a man!”

Second Layer

his hands on the wheel
the pregnant pause -
my pleas, go - just go

birth, death, root canal work,
surgery - if only we
could sub contract

masks and caring eyes
one, two, th…

a blur at the foot
of the bed
offers water

what’s that?
kisses on my forehead-
he’s been waiting

alone I unveil
the razor’s slash
so neatly “boned and stitched”

put their gown cum jacket
into the laundry bin
let the shower baptises me

pair bond
pared back to
pre- pubescence

friends visit
funny stories, food parcels
feel the love

tubes trail from below the skin
to a plastic bag
nestling in pink chintz

post-operative high
lesson learned?
nothing’s impossible!

pink gingham PJs,
the look’s lopsided
Oklahoma extra

asleep in a
relaxation class,

my roomie’s thirty-three,
a lawyer, no kids
such a cruel disease

the “burst mattress” hair
of my boy bounces up the ward
till he clocks my tubes and freezes

drains run dry and come out
wound feels every cobble
of the journey home

in the back garden
the wisteria’s flowered.
I missed it

oh the tender care
I lavished here -
the illusion of control

dog sniffs my chest
his baleful look
says it all

Third layer

pathology bad
prognosis uncertain
protocol challenging

we’re all here - old, young,
black, white - cancer operates
PR; it’s the Lib Dem of disease

the oncologist has a winning
smile and Wonder Woman looks
- and super human powers?

a year of treatment -
work’s not an option
I’ll get very weak

synthetic tresses,
the smell of Sindy
circa Christmas 1964

a grim wee Rapunzel tale?
good wigs are made from
Eastern European virgin hair

the scar doesn’t show my hair
should re-grow and suddenly
bald men don’t come from Mars

our mirror eyes come to rest
on me in this mullet wig
creasing up we run outside

the chemo suite, all Parker Knoll
and pond skaters - don’t disturb
the surface tension

in the corner, behind a curtain,
talk of side effects -
as more tears fall

“new? I’m with Mum, the last soul
sitting there was riddled with it..”
it’s the only empty chair

it’s like the Blitz, WRVS ladies
dispense tea as the good
and bad get carpet bombed

a wee girl, Mum on a drip,
offers pretend tea
my favourite

hand in hot water,
to make veins oblige, then
chemical cocktail by cannula

a rush up my arm, no real pain
till it reaches scar tissue
and jumps around a little

food shopping high on steroids -
trolley’s groaning,
I’m gibbering

hair’s parting company,
so Debbie shaves it off
before it fully sheds

Debs says baldness suits
me - I’ve got a little head
and we both laugh till we cry

Mum’s mantra, “bare heads lose heat”
but she’s long gone, and
so, Thank God, are balaclavas

cold in bed - replace
my cotton skull cap
and instantly feel warm again

the wound heals
time for a prosthesis, its off
the peg, had hopes for haute couture….

walk up and down with
it lying heavy in my bra
that’s me, I’m fixed

promised a sticky-backed one
when treatment’s over
Valerie S eat your heart out!

a sticky- backed boob
in a Scottish summer -
think midgie Garibaldi

my wig and boob
wait on the dresser
reduced to a music hall joke

twelve cycles, three weeks apart,
knock me back, watch me rise
keep repeating the exercise

from bed I watch
masts of ochre beech toss
but only till I’m sick

spaced out, detached,
here and yet not -
l..e..t..h..a..r..g..y cradle me

busy being ill - appointments, exercises
medication, tests, blood samples,
bureaucrats and benefits

collective memory, tar and feathers
shame and disgrace
I’m sleeping with the enemy

Fourth Layer

Christmas,my son
asks for “normal”
so I cook and collapse

bells bong,
one singer one song
but for how long

dinner at friends
sitting at their table I see
everything I’ve lost

her food parcels get us
through the “middle weeks”
- such acts of kindness

to averted eyes in Tescos
yes I’m mortal -
but not contagious

prayers for my wee heathen soul
are said by
Catholics, Protestants and Jews

my cohort includes
Brenda, Meg, June, Steph,
Joanne, Millie, not forgetting Hope

we lunch in hats like maiden aunts
and for a giggle order
anything that’s smoked

on holiday from chemo,
left arm up behind my head
on a mechanical brontosaurus

keep very still!! not easy
with Jimmy Shand playing
and you all skipping from the room

slow cooking
three thirty second bursts
Monday to Friday for a month

fair skin tolerates
radiation well - a silver lining
after years of factor 38

peeling like an onion -
no not my skin,
my life

the present’s tense - so
from in this dark cocoon I watch
a new take on the past

hairy hundreds, gritty thousands
ice cream slips after four whole licks
story of my fucking life

a blazing row
such a sweet relief
so sick of being saintly

Fifth Layer

more chemo, six to do
scalp’s sprouting baby fluff
Spring’s around the corner

this is chemo lite
so newly won stubble
won’t fall out

arrive to be told
my liver function’s bad
side effect or mets?

another scan
always inscrutable
but I’m brazen now -
“what do you see?!”

breezy nurse opens the
brown envelope, “nothing,
good - next chemo coming up”

chemo equals oral thrush
thrush meds equal lousy liver function
so a new pill in the “party bag”

veins protest
give up the ghost
even practised nurses wince

head patchy, skin itchy,
mouth sore, left eye waters
can’t remember being “well”

all this to stay alive?
frankly cancer
didn’t feel so bad

it’s a car wash, nominal
control as something
vast pulls you through

birthday looms
dates become
too significant

my son breaks down at school -
so glad we told them
so glad they told us

a mother faded out in
a TV cancer ad - presumably
our kids don’t watch

woes tied to a balloon and
watch them float away…
who’s the bastard with a gun?

can’t do group therapy
my beach walk’s always
Millport to their Maldives

I trust myself -
and look where
that got you!

I have definite fuzz
more than a peach
less than suede

son tells me to keep
my hat on - my hairline
looks too butch

watch with fledgling lashes
as people stop and stroke,
my jaggy, stubbly head

he drops me at chemo, afterwards
we do the supermarket run -
routine is all, all is routine

he says let’s just
get through this first
and figure the rest out later

Sixth Layer

my sister won’t meet my eye
can almost smell her fear
she rarely visits

watch, her bum hovers
then she’s off -
a greyhound from a trap

if not for me then at least for mine
- think of all the times
I watched your kids

she says I can’t be helped
I hope to God she’s wrong

finally I say go
and don’t come back,
I’m better on my own

is it the role reversal
she can’t forgive
I’ve ceased to care

four when she was eight
eight and she was twelve
but I grew up

Seventh Layer

an iffy prognosis
five years, ten
always that Gallic shrug

how to go on
to live with intention
after this

that wee girl, the tomboy,
she had promise
doesn’t she deserve a chance

not going back
want out, want off
their gerbil wheel

knowing what they seek
I hate the way
they feel my neck

my new hair’s curly -
poodle tight, seems nothing
stays the same

catch 22 - pension’s payable
provided you’re dying
not if you’re just very likely to

tell them I’m not going back -
I’m done with all that

breathing’s hard but every day
I wash a pane of glass - sowing
tree seeds, a small act of faith

a perfect match, this music,
the strong March light - both so
precise, so sharp, so fleeting

my new digital toy,
sleek and tiny,
makes histograms of light

photograph a spider’s web,
the dog, and me
with poodle hair

Eighth Layer

it takes too many goes
to get blood from this stone
today they almost used my toe

the end should be in sight
but abysmal bloods mean
the tape keeps shifting

what will it be like
not to do this anymore
can’t imagine

June’s good advice
on life, on trouble
“detach, detach, detach….”

finally it’s over

cake and smiles
nurses wish me luck
thank you, thank you all so much

three month check-ups
then 6, then 12 - in between
“symptoms will be investigated”

our dogs introduce us in the park
she’s lost the right, me the left
we make a funny pair

her name is snow in Spanish
she has a warm heart
I have another sister

we share dark-haired
sons,ginger mongrels
and breast cancer

now the hard part,
to love, trust, risk,
live, for the better