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Seeing Red: Cancer and anger, in poems and pictures

Compiled by: Alysa Cummings
OncoLink
Last Modified: May 12, 2013

Seeing Red

Introduction

By Alysa Cummings

A cancer diagnosis. Anger. The cause-effect relationship between a serious health crisis and a person's strong emotional reaction to it seems so obvious. Commonsensical, even. Maybe that's why my mother wasted so few words on the subject when I went into a screaming "why me" rage over the bad news in my path report. "Get mad. You're entitled," she pronounced, a voice of reason as I melted down in front of her. "Get good and mad and beat this thing."

It would take me a long while to make some peace with my cancer anger. Even longer to focus and do something productive with it. (Truth be told, like anyone in a recovery mode, I need to take anger "one day at a time" and work on it constantly). So while my mother's validation of my feelings felt good for the moment, it did precious little to help me cope with my ongoing rage after diagnosis and through treatment.

Here's one example: I had to get my teeth cleaned before the first round of chemo.  Having read my file, the dental tech knew that I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. As usual, she tapped, poked around and scraped a bit. Like any good patient in the chair, I followed orders to rinse and spit. Halfway through the cleaning, as I reclined under the bright light, with instruments sticking out of my mouth, the dental tech shared this gem of unsolicited medical advice: If I were you, hon, I'd just get 'em both whacked off.

Just try to get mad as a sharp instrument probes for plaque below the gumline, while a saliva extractor is wedged beneath your tongue. Maybe the best you can do is get red in the face and make unpleasant grunting sounds deep in your throat. So I fumed all the way home and once I got there, opened my journal and drafted an angry poem. First I wrote down the dental tech's "get 'em both whacked off" comment and then underneath I wrote;

oh but she is not me,
 and her words are so sharp, so sharp
 it feels as if she just has.

(A quick postscript: At my request, my dental records were forwarded to another practice. When the office manager asked why I was leaving, I offered to explain the reason why if the dentist would just get in touch. He never called).

And I didn't sit by the phone waiting either, because I had lots of other things to worry about. Namely, getting through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments that monopolized two years of my life. During that time, lots of other angry poems landed side by side with that dental tech poem in my cancer journal. Why? Because during cancer treatment, nerve endings can feel like they are sticking out right through your skin. So many hurts. So many losses. The physical and emotional injuries start piling up, one after another. Nothing feels right. Nothing seems good enough. Nothing is the way it should be. Nothing will ever be the way it was before. AND THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.

...except maybe get good and angry. And possibly deal with all that righteous anger by talking it out with a good listener. Or by writing it down.

But let's dig a little deeper. What are survivors so angry about? Is it the loss of control? The loss of security? Is it the fist shaking fury of "what did I do to deserve this?" Or could it be some of the little things that start to grate and get on our collective last nerve?

Maybe it's those well meaning relatives who say the wrong thing at the wrong time, intoning "how aaarrrreee you" with such long faces and pity in their eyes. Maybe we've had it with acquaintances who chatter on and on about their second hand cancer experiences (Did I ever tell you what happened to my Aunt Rose?) and don't have a clue that they are speaking in the past tense.

Could we be just a little bit peeved at the tech drawing blood that tries but just can't hit the only good vein left in your arm? Could it be the endless doctors' appointments or the long wait for test results that sets us off? Or have we just had it up to here with all those books and articles that preach the religion of "upbeat survivor perky-ness" when some days positive thinking is a less than reasonable expectation? Or is it that the cancer experience feels like a parallel universe, separate and apart from the rest of life as we once knew it? How did we end up in this wacky Bizarro World filled with freaky language and strange rituals? A place described so memorably by Sylvia Plath in her poem "Tulips" as, "a country far away as health."

Which brings me to Seeing Red. Here's an anthology of poems written by survivors that puts a bright spotlight on the anger that is punched into many tickets to Cancerland. If you are a survivor recovering from treatment, my heartfelt wish is that you can relate to the poets' experiences and see your own reflected here in places. May that connection bring you some peace of mind and move you forward on your own journey. (You may even be motivated to draft a poem or two, angry or otherwise, using the Instant Fill in the Blanks forms provided).

See red then, won't you? See sarcasm. Hear bits of ranting and raving. Followed by groaning and grieving. Sense the irony and black humor. It's all here. Then sometimes feel the anger flare and burn, words and spirit glowing red and hot and alive.

To once again quote my mother, when it comes to cancer and anger, we're entitled.

Alysa Cummings
May, 2003

Digital images created and poems selected by Alysa Cummings