31 Days of Pink Ribbon Poetry | Collected by and Digital images by Alysa Cummings
Alicia Suskin Ostriker
From: The Crack in Everything (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996)
You never think it will happen to you,
What happens every day to other women.
Then as you sit paging a magazine,
Its beauties lying idly in your lap,
Waiting to be routinely waved good-bye
Until next year, the mammogram technician
Says, Sorry, we need to do this again,
And you have already become a statistic,
Citizen of a country where the air,
Water, your estrogen, have just saluted
Their target cells, planted their Judas kiss
Inside the Jerusalem of the breast.
Here on the film what looks like specks of dust
Is calcium deposits.
Go put your clothes on in a shabby booth
Whose curtain reaches halfway to the floor.
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth...
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face us with the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.— Henri Nouwen
From: Almost Home Free, Pecan Grove Press, 2003.
My breast has swallowed something
bulbous, the size of a walnut,
the texture of cotton swabs. How
obvious it is, this thing, this invader
who leaves tracks. This is a lump,
this whoosh of light on a gray veiny surface:
mammogram begging to be noticed,
A terrible lack of certainty floods the room
where years of my breasts shine
above me on a screen. X-rays
like eyes in the darkness
throw me into a world of fear.
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.— Rudyard Kipling
From: Bare Root; a poet's journey with breast cancer (Terrapin Press, 2002)
a finger crooked:
there's a table set for one.
...A gentle hand inside my chest, with mending tape and glue, patches up my heart until it's almost good as new...— Judith Viorst
From: Her Soul Beneath the Bone, edited by Leatrice H. Lifshitz. University of Illinois Press, 1988.
When they came at me with sharp knives
I put perfume under my nose.
When they knocked me out on the
I dreamed I was flying.
When they asked me embarrassing questions
I remembered the clouds in the sky.
When they were about to drown me
When they laid harsh hands on me
I thought of fireworks I had seen with you.
When they told me I was sick and might die
I left them and went away with you
To where I live
When they took off my right breast
I gave it to them.
Prayerlike thoughts, offered from a distance, have been demonstrated to increase the healing rate of surgical wounds...— Larry Dossey, M.D.
From: Lifting My Shirt: the breast cancer poems
I suddenly want my
and I put on a hat,
a coat and boots,
Because my mother
is in a hot fudge sundae
with coffee ice cream and pecans
and so that it will
not be exclusively
eating her I ask for
When the ice cream
is home and gone
I need to hear Van Morrison
covering "Motherless Child."
I am determined to be
an unbroken mother
and say earnestly
into the phone
that someplace between
a rage and faith
The miracle of self-healing occurs when the inner patient yields to the inner physician.— Vernon Howard
From: Her Soul Beneath the Bone: women's poetry on breast cancer
(Edited by Leatrice H. Lifshitz), University of Illinois Press, 1988
I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the
amazon, the one who shoots arrows.
There was a fine red line across my chest where a knife
entered, but now
a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart.
Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird
What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm.
I think the bird is singing.
I have relinquished some of the scars.
I have designed my chest with the care given to an illumi-
I am no longer ashamed to make love. Love is a battle I
I have the body of a warrior who does not kill or wound.
On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree.
God heals, and the doctor takes the fee.— Benjamin Franklin
From: The Cancer Poetry Project (Karin B. Miller, editor), Copyright © 2001 Fairview Press
I stood outside on a windy day
and ran my fingers through my hair.
Long strands of silky threads
blew across the lawn.
They glistened in the sun,
too many to count.
I imagined a nest,
lined with my mane,
woven by a mama bird.
The babies nestled,
warmed by my fallen tresses.
Now on the wintry nights,
when my head is cold
I pull my wool cap
over my ears and smile
as I dream of baby birds
sleeping in my hair.
The... patient should be made to understand that he or she must take charge of his own life. Don't take your body to the doctor as if he were a repair shop.— Quentin Regestein
Shannon Olin Kresge
We did not ask for this.
We did not set our platters
before Death and beg,
"Please, if you will,
We did not make secret pacts
with our cells in the night,
urging them to darker deeds.
We did not stand
in the middle of the field
and call the lightning down.
Somehow, we were chosen-
As oaks before they are felled,
As fruit, crushed into wine.
And so it is.
So let us choose
To unearth what was once lost to us,
display it, sparkling, on our persons.
To unlock, unbar those doors
that shield us from one another.
To welcome ourselves home again-
grow warm before the fire,
laugh at the lightning,
savor the wine.
I believe that love is the golden thread that unites the many forms of healing.— Bernie Siegel, M.D.
a 45 year old
who noted a
in her right breast
several weeks ago.
Left breast was
There is no
She is single
and has no children.
Appears her stated age.
She is alert and comfortable,
in no apparent distress.
Vital signs are stable.
for allowing me
in the care of
A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.— Irish Proverb
My stomach clenches
at the sight of her pursed lips,
the lines bracketing
a mouth drooping low.
Her whispery voice
with its false note of joy
rasps the bones in my ears
like dull saws scraping
wet wood. She steals time-
my time, your time-
spins a thread a spider would envy.
I fear the part I abhor
is the thing I recognize,
spend my energy
stilling my tongue.
For me, singing sad songs often has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness.— Reba McEntire
F. Richard Thomas
From: The Cancer Poetry Project: poems by cancer patients and those who love them.
Karin B. Miller, editor. Fairview Press, 2001.
It's the night before your mastectomies.
I'm sitting on the end of the bed.
(We got the faded-orange-curtain-40-watt-lightbulb-
From the shower,
you suddenly loom over me,
smelling of peppermint soap and wet leaves
around the lake in the fall.
Holding a breast in each hand,
as if restraining the flight of doves,
you press them to my face and erupt into tears.
I touch my lips to one, then the other,
falter at the scent of my self -
the joyful signature of my fingers and hands.
I pull your body hard to mine,
as if to hurt will help to heal.
The room fades in and out like a bad radio.
The baseboard heater tick tick ticks.
Outside, the helicopter walloping on the roof
lowers a burned child,
stars explode across the night,
volcanoes rise from the ocean floor,
wobble the earth on its axis.
Except for our breathing,
we dare not move.
A courtesy acknowledgment to:
F. Richard Thomas, Death at Camp Palooka, Michigan State University Press, 2000
There ain't much fun in medicine, but there's a heck of a lot of medicine in fun.— Josh Billings
From: The Cancer Poetry Project: poems by cancer patients and those who love them (Karin B. Miller, editor) Fairview Press, 2001
I remember water
touching my body differently
as, still whole, I lay in that last hot bath.
Now I discover a freckle
beneath where my breast once was
and feel a newness come over me.
I ask god to tell me he loves me
and he answers
through the taste of a sweet, summer peach.
Water pours over a scarred, curveless mass, and I am
The most important medicine is tender love and care.— Mother Teresa
From: Reading the Body (Mammoth Press, 2004)
I stood in front of the mirror bare-chested,
a flat slate, open field, horizonless
like the round earth isn't really
so round anymore.
The slim trails of stitches, crooked line
that climbs a little, dives a little
across each side. The branding
in my clavicle where chemo port went in,
chemo port came out, the almost
invisible pink line in the left armpit
in lieu of lymph nodes there, and
the ruddy thicker line down my stomach
to pubic bone, dividing belly into two halves --
all the parts exposed, slashed expertly open,
all these parts surrendering their goods
to the surgeon's hands, sealing themselves
back up like the earth cut open, excavated,
relandscaped to accommodate new clearings,
the mining for danger and risk,
the yearning for long life.
I stood in front of this mirror
while the moon hung soft and round
in the corner of the bathroom window,
while the kids argued in the other room
over the clashing tones of television,
while the cat slept on my bed just beyond,
while the bathwater roared into its container
soon ready to part and let me in,
and I knew it was still the same place --
the same grasslands, butterfly milkweed,
the same storms parading over --
of my body.
All the skin complete,
all the blood complete,
all the muscle complete,
all the tears, all the breathing
ongoing toward this completeness,
and all of it, beyond understanding, good.
I think you might dispense with half your doctors if you would only consult Dr. Sun more.— Henry Ward Beecher
From: Beyond Cancer: an anthology of visual and written art (Barbara Brownstein, editor) Healing Arts Program at Cancer Lifeline, Seattle, Washington, 2002
A winter's sun climbs
One hundred temple steps
I follow behind.
After chemo hour
My son buys nausea meds
And one fragrant rose.
Cloudbanks break open
Waves of yellow daffodils
My body dances toward light.
Underneath the scars
Three stalks of bamboo
One candle burning softly
Slow deep breath of now.
Poplar trees brushing skyline
My arms embrace life
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.— Charles A Beard
Copyright © 1998 Art.Rage.Us: art & writing by women with breast cancer; a project of The Breast Cancer Fund (Chronicle Books); originally appeared in No Pine Tree in This Forest is Perfect (Slapering Hol Press, 1997)
Tired is a cape in the night-
Tired is a long tunnel-
It's the woods, windy
snow that melts
a viola bow frayed
Tired from the inside out
Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.— Buddha
From: Chemo-Poet and other poems. Alice James Books, 1989
Dracula comes through my window, hungry as usual, Fine, I
say, hungry too, hungry for the kiss, the bite, everlasting life.
He shows up in his rented suit and fine white shirt. He is
wearing his company manners. "Would you be so kind," he
says. "Yes." And I picture his wings protecting me in the dark
skies. Dracula drinks my blood and vomits six hours later. In
three weeks he loses all his hair.
Of one thing I am certain, the body is not the measure of healing — peace is the measure.— George Melton
From: Beyond Cancer: an anthology of visual & written art, Cancer Lifeline, Seattle, WA
I am in chemotherapy for metastasized breast cancer.
When I go into remission
I will wear cowgirl boots with tooled flowers;
jeans that fit, but not too tight,
and a leather jacket with a six-inch fringe.
I will have a Western shirt embroidered
with silver beads and brightly-colored threads.
I will sing Emmy Lou Harris songs
and laugh and cry at the keyboard.
I will go to rodeos and horse shows,
travel to the desert
and ride an appaloosa among the saguaros.
I will hear the rhythm of the horse's hooves on the trail,
and in the barn smell the hay.
I will lie by the side of a slow-summer river
and let the horse drink as the water purrs by.
I will feel the wind in my hair
and take in the heat of the valley on my face.
I will live in sunshine and sleep below enormous night skies.
I will drink milk and margaritas, sleep until dawn,
and rise with the light.
To feel keenly the poetry of a morning's roses, one has to have just escaped from the claws of this vulture which we call sickness.— Henri Frederic Amiel
Hope is the thing with petals
smiling towards the sun.
A yellow beam of light
streaming across a dark room.
Hope is a rose with no petals
bursting into full bloom.
Hope is what we wish for;
a paintbrush poised over pristine paper,
rainbow palette in hand.
Hope is a rope we cling to
when the ground gives way
beneath our feet.
Hope is waking up to see
morning's hazy first light;
the new dawn unfolding.
Hope is joy and dreams;
what just could be;
shafts of sun peeking through a cloudy day.
Hope is taking baby steps
to reach the summit,
knowing you can survive
anything and everything.
Hope is embracing life,
believing in the wonder
when there's nothing left.
Hope is what we are grateful for:
a caring voice on the phone,
a letter from a friend,
a family to love,
a walk hand in hand with your lover.
Hope is a tiny shard of light
escaping a crack beneath the door;
a willingness to cross a threshold to worlds unknown,
open to endless possibilities.
Our thanks and appreciation to our Hope is... poets who gave us permission to use their names and credit their contribution to this collaborative writing project:
Once all the Hope is... submissions were received, Alysa Cummings shared them with her breast cancer survivors poetry therapy group, Pink Ribbon Poetry, who reviewed all of them and worked feverishly as a team to create the finished poem you see here.
Our bodies are our gardens — our wills are our gardeners.— William Shakespeare
From: Unbearable Uncertainty: the fear of breast cancer recurrence(Edited by Amy Bowes, Terry S. Gingras, Beth A. Kaplowitt, Anne Perkins) Pioneer Valley Breast Cancer Network, 2000
at the world.
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.— Elizabeth Kübler— Ross
From: The Cancer Poetry Project Karin B. Miller, Editor, Copyright © 2001 Fairview Press
Trash your cigarettes. Shun restaurants and bars
that traffic in secondhand smoke. Eat organic
and low on the food chain. Steam vegetables;
don't grill meat. Just say "no" to marijuana, Jack
Daniels and cocaine. Stay home: do not rent cars
at Miami's airport, or ride the
or dig potshards in the Negev after massacres
in Hebron. Don't drive vans older than you are
to places you've never been. Always buckle your
seat belt. Have someone else strip the asbestos
from your furnace and heating pipes. Test for radon
in the basement, lead in the drinking water, cracks
in the microwave shield. Avoid electric blankets.
Use condoms, or don't have sex. Walk to work.
Remember your sunblock. Don't go jogging after dark.
Keep off the neighbors' grass after they've sprayed
the yard. Wear a helmet when you bike. Take
a buddy to the lake. Don't lie about your weight
to the man who adjusts your skis. Lower stress
with yoga; divorce your husband if you must. Cross
your fingers, say "Star Bright" to Venus, avoid
black cats, spit three times over your shoulder
on your thirteenth annual visit to the oncologist.
If I had my way I'd make health catching instead of disease.— Robert Ingersoll
and out of
there, I swear,
in the blink of an
eye. Moving at warp
speed, clothes peeled to
the waist in seconds flat.
Motion lines blur, tremble
on either side of me. I fight
off demons that recur, mute
their evil chatter (we found it
once, we'll find it again). Steal
a quick glance down at my
watch. It's official: I'm in
and out and on my way,
I'd say in maybe half
the time it takes
Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.— Hippocrates
From: Divine Honors (Wesleyan University Press, 1997)
Here plants-gold and dry-rustle up
green at soil's edge.
Music roils in the room
where I wait, my chest holding even
at the scar's edge.
Whatever chances I took
paid off and now I have only
the rest of my life to consider
Once it was a globe, an ocean
to cross, at least a desert-
now a rivulet, or a blowhole.
I remember it was like a story,
Rampal said on the radio.
He told you the Beethoven concerto.
I am telling you cancer.
I am telling you like moisture
at soil's edge after winter, or
the bulb of the amaryllis you brought
raising stem after stem from cork dirt,
one hybrid flower after another unfurling
for hours, each copper petal opening its throat so
slowly, each shudder of tone-mahogany, coral, blood-
an ache, orgasm, agony, life.
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.— Susan Sontag
Nancy Louise Peterson
From: The Cancer Poetry Project (Karin B. Miller, Editor), Copyright © 2001 Fairview Press
finally brought the full-length mirror
The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not.— Mark Twain
She stands on a low stool
wearing blue surgical booties
and a dazed expression,
limp cotton gown at her feet.
Plastic men with purple magic markers
(permanent pointy tip)
circle her, chatter in matching mint green scrubs,
slowly map the scalpel's winding path
with purple spots and sketchy lines.
They connect dots, front and back,
mark pale skin sorely branded,
burned and scarred.
She senses their plot and plan
from a far off distant place.
Her hands first flutter nervously at her sides
then clutch and clench,
open closed, open closed
pushing shame and anger
in hot surges, up to stain her cheeks flaming red.
Naked and fierce, no pockets hide her fists.
She poses on her pedestal,
spins around slow,
no twinge of fear, no prayer of hope,
mute - a block of damaged marble
impatient for an artist's sharp blade
to set her fighting spirit free.
How poor are they who have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees.— William Shakespeare
Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad
From: Fine Black Lines: Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear and Loneliness Hjelmstad Mulberry Hill Press, 1998
I could live
the rest of my life
But if cancer recurs
can I count on
the recurrence of
hope and courage too?
When our eyes see our hands doing the work of our hearts, the circle of Creation is completed inside us, the doors of our souls fly open, and love steps forth to heal everything in sight.— Michael Bridge
From: Don't Turn Away: poems about breast cancer. PWJ Publishing, 2000.
I've been sliced and diced
and carved up nice,
put back together
with plastic and wire.
I sashay forth, head high,
take on the world
So, buddy, when the lights are low,
the mood's right, we're feeling tight,
I'll strip down to the skin
I live in.
You'd better get ready.
Brace your knees, stir that juice.
'Cause I'm me,
one hell of a woman,
and those knives
didn't change me at all.
We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.— Marcel Proust
From: I Am Becoming The Woman I've Wanted by Sandra Martz. Papier-Mache Press, 1994
She is not herself anymore,
hasn't been since she stood before the mirror
in her own bathroom, holding
her own toothbrush, an ordinary
gesture, two days
later. She was lucky
to be alive, they all said, lucky
to lose something she didn't need,
not an essential foot
or a necessary hand.
They told her to rest.
They took her to dinner and talked
of the new kittens, the new boss
pestering like a small boy,
the small woman blessing them
from the corner booth.
The women across the table
were intact, might have lost a job
or a tennis match, maybe even
have lost touch with a son
or a good friend.
When she touched what was lost,
splayed her fingers across her chest
like a child cheating a peek
in a nightmare flick,
she heard the word "best".
"This is best", they said.
"This is my breast," she tells the woman
in the glass, her hands cupped
like small graves
over the pale landscape, the shadow
of full moons. She feels the lips
of her first baby sucking
at air, sees him nested now in the crook
of his mother's life,
of this other woman's arm.
Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.— Helen Keller
Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad
From: Fine Black Lines, Mulberry Hill Press, 1993
Please do not trivialize
You who are healthy
You whose mortality is as yet
Only dimly perceived-
Please do not say
"You will be just fine."
I may well be-someday-
But I do not know...
You do not know...
Transformations is the word. We can do the work of transformation only in the present moment.— Thich Nhat Hanh
From: Lifting My Shirt: the breast cancer poems
When breast cancer had me
I only could write about fear:
the smiling impervious doctors,
the devices they used
that squeezed and pierced and sliced,
drew blood, singed and severed,
then the taut and vacant side,
or the intricate ache that would not go away
and still fingers my heart.
Some people ask where
are the poems of gratitude
extolling the new life seized
the now resplendent mundane,
my adoration of the breast
I wonder why
these poems did not
soar out of me
It is almost a year
since the mammogram,
the terrible words
that lodged deep
inside my ear and breast.
A journal on healing
asked for a poem and none
came forward saying
send me, let me
tell them what healing is.
Will I ever have
A Bernie Siegel moment?
Has trauma bared
a deeper fault line coupled to
these grinding plates
Heaving one, I hear
My therapist tell me
this is what healing is:
No huge revelation.
Instead there are bits,
semi-precious, tumbled smooth
and showing up
under eye and foot
Where they are not expected:
sudden birds in swept skies,
flowers in vertical rocks,
sere cliffs and half domes,
yellow cottonwoods big as hope;
rivers of silvery muscle;
sun melting frost in my hair,
the moon a white pearl button and stars
in her velvety pocket;
a van named Blanche
that drove me all through Utah,
strangers that entered
endearment, and yes, now
that I am home, my friends
showing me my vacant side
is nothing less
When I stand before thee at the day's end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.— Rabindranath Tagore
From The Cancer Poetry Project (Karin B. Miller, editor), Fairview Press, 2001
I don't want to hear about your uncle
and how he lived three years
after being diagnosed.
And I don't want to hear
how many times your cousin threw up
when she had chemo.
Nor how your neighbor's baby
had twelve toes
maybe from radiation.
And I don't want your sounds of pity
simpering about my situation.
Pity separates us and
with one out of three getting cancer now,
pity won't keep you safe.
I have suddenly crossed the boundary line
of the risky circle called cancer.
It has made me public property, like being largely pregnant.
People invade - an assault of connections -
for reasons fair and foul.
Strangers on elevators. Acquaintances.
The medical cadre, too.
I am covered with fingerprints, with labels.
I will take hugs, help,
plus anger, strength, and love.
But the only person I want to hear about
is your Grandma Ruth,
who was diagnosed at fifty
and died at ninety,
hold your tongue.
Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you — all of the expectations, all of the beliefs — and becoming who you are.— Rachel Naomi Remen
From: Bare Root; a poet's journey with breast cancer, Copyright © 2002 Terrapin Press
Could I love the starlit sky
if I did not also love the sun
the reflection of the meadow in a horse's eye
the curve of my nose
even the sound of my own voice
though I have spoken with the spite of Esau
and wept because I had asked for too much?
How can I not love and thank
the Host of this entire universe?
I can't imagine not begging to stay
no matter when it's my time,
but when I must,
I want to leave
blowing kisses off my fingertips
and using my last breath to say
I have loved it all.
The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.— Hubert H. Humphrey
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