The CancerLand Bookshelf: A Taste of Caregiver Poetry


Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

The sun is shining brightly for a wintry day in mid-January, but the wind is howling and the temperature’s dropping. So it seems like a no-brainer to stay home and work on indoor projects today.

By lunchtime, other than a quick trip outside to the backyard (a medium sized tree branch has broken off and crashed to the ground. I drag it to the curb and rush back inside), the day is passing by unremarkably with classical music playing softly in the background. That’s when I spot an email from my friends at Oncolink, inviting me to take a peek at a collection of poems written by a caregiver. I’m happy to oblige.

The poet’s name is Donna Marie Merritt and her collection is titled Cancer: A Caregiver’s View (Avalon Press, 2011). Writing poetry while her husband experienced chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant helped her cope with their crisis. (The collection is available for purchase from the publisher directly).

Let me share two of her poems from the collection that “spoke” to me:

The Smile

He

smiles

at us

Oncologist

smiles

at us

Looks us

in the eye

and

smiles

at

us

The

tumor

is

shrinking

Shrinking

he says

We stare at him

He smiles at us

We hold the news

in our hands

If we drop it

it will shatter

Lost

He’s lost his appetite

for food

alcohol

sex

There is nothing

I can offer him

that tempts him

I compensate

by eating more

drinking more

myself

But I need

his hands

on my body

his tongue

in my mouth

I have an urge

for his strength

to surge through me

He’s too sick to miss it

but I do

Donna’s two poems vividly depict some of the challenges of supporting a spouse after a cancer diagnosis. Her writing prompts me to scan my CancerLand Bookshelf to find some other examples of caregiver poetry.

The search quickly turns up two favorite books of mine that are already represented in the Oncolink Poetry collection.

I can enthusiastically recommend them both to you.

The Cancer Poetry Project (Fairview Press, 2001) is an award winning anthology that features poetry written by cancer patients and caregivers alike. In fact, editor Karin Miller is currently collecting poetry for a second volume of the series. Poets interested in learning more about submitting poems for consideration should visit the Cancer Poetry Project website.

Here’s a link to one of my favorite caregiver poems from The Cancer Poetry Project:

Slow Dancing at the Med-Inn

No discussion of caregiver poetry would be complete without a mention of The Radiation Sonnets (Algonquin Books, 2003). Noted children’s author Jane Yolen accompanied her husband David to all forty-three of his radiation treatments. And as she sat patiently in the waiting room, day after day she drafted a daily sonnet describing her experience as a caregiver.

Here’s one of them:

Waiting Room

Reading (and re-reading) caregiver poetry reminds me of some important facts about CancerLand. First and foremost, that a cancer diagnosis has a terrible ripple effect, disrupting the lives of all the significant others connected to the patient. Yes, cancer treatment is a painful, challenging journey – and I can vouch for that based on personal experience as a cancer survivor – but supporting someone going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation is difficult and draining too.

Writing can be a healing outlet for the caregiver patiently trying to cope with one crisis after another. And if a caregiver doesn’t feel comfortable putting some of those difficult emotions into words, these fine examples of published caregiver poetry allow a reader to open a book and see their own experience reflected there.