Cancer Scripts, in poems and pictures
by Alysa Cummings
The therapist listens. Listens to all of it. Listens and nods in places. Murmurs the occasional uh-huh to keep me talking. With her encouragement, I slowly spill details from my cancer story. The current chapter just happens to be, "Post-Surgery #1 and Pre-Round Two of Chemo."
I feel the therapist's gaze as I ramble on. Feel her kind grey eyes reading me. Then I sense her focus slowly drift away from my face, up, above my forehead, to stop at an invisible point right above my head. Self-consciously I reach for a handful of hair trailing down the nape of my neck to jerk the wig back into place.
Damn this wig. This long, dark brown synthetic wig named Jennifer. Named no doubt to distinguish her from wigs called Candy (curly brunette), Jasmine (blonde and straight) or Danielle (wavy red). But with wigs having names, I can sit here in therapy as a newbie cancer survivor and actually whine, "I hate Jennifer. She's itchy and uncomfortable. Plus, she makes me look like a female impersonator, don't you think?" Somehow, in this small room, tastefully decorated in rich dark wood paneling and flowery chintz slipcovers, I can openly share my worst here-and-now fear with a trained professional: my nightmare that one day at work, Jennifer will take a nose dive right off my head, leaving me standing speechless and humiliated, (not to mention totally bald), in front of an audience full of strangers.
Bottom line, I am trying therapy on for size. To see how it fits. There's no question I need some help. Cancer treatment is wreaking predictable havoc - from the inside out, from the outside in - on my body, my spirit, my life. What's most upsetting is that when I look in the mirror I can't find any "me" that even looks vaguely familiar.
Springsteen's sad song lyrics are starting to make frightening sense: I was unrecognizable to myself. Maybe cancer has actually changed me into some stranger named Jennifer. Maybe therapy will help me understand this new, disturbing sense of self. Maybe I am trying to put up a good front, playing the part of Super Cancer Patient, but in reality I am slowly losing it. Maybe, just maybe, arm wrestling with appearance demons is a smokescreen for the real life and death issues I am unwilling (or unable) to think about right now. Maybe I don't have a clue.
When our first fifty minute hour comes to an end, the therapist rises from her chair with tears welling up in her eyes and walks the few steps across the room, from her chair to mine, with her arms opened wide. She draws me into an embrace and hugs me uncomfortably close. Releasing me with a warm pat on the back, she says somberly, "It's not just your cancer. You are part of the community of women who live on this planet. We suffer as you suffer. Fight hard. Fight well. We fight side by side with you."
She sends me out the door with a clear and compelling mission: to go off and fight the Cancer Wars for the Good of Womankind. And maybe because that's such a tall order, such a major agenda item on anyone's "to-do" list, I never make another appointment to see her again. Either that, or I don't need to. After all, I have been given my marching orders for this particularly challenging mission: I am Warrior Woman and cancer is the enemy I have to beat to a pulp. Looking back, almost five years after the fact, I know that the "cancer script" the therapist handed over that day in her office, played itself out, one scene after another, all the way through treatment.
Truth be told, I put so much energy into playing a role, "courageously fighting the good fight," that Sandy, my favorite oncology nurse, made a comment during one of my last chemo infusions that I will never forget. "Ease up on yourself a little bit, why don't you," she said, "you know, when this is all over, no medals will be given out."
All of which brings me around to our latest Oncolink project - Cancer Scripts: in poems and pictures. The Good War is an example of a cancer script; one of five described by psychiatrist Dr. Karen Ritchie in Angels & Bolters: Women's Cancer Scripts. In her book, Dr. Ritchie draws upon her many years of working with cancer survivors to articulate the cancer experience for so many women using the script concept initially popularized b Eric Berne. Of all of the scripts she describes, "the good war" resonated most loudly for me. But honestly, the entire book "spoke" to me in such a compelling way that I immediately contacted the author to learn more. Through both the magic of email and the gracious long distance cooperation of Dr. Ritchie, our virtual interview follows below. At the same time, I contacted fellow survivor poets, shared the cancer script concept and invited their submission of poems to reflect the five cancer scripts. Add some instant fill in the blanks interactive poetry forms, lots of digital photographs and before you know it, Cancer Scripts: in poems and pictures emerged as you see it here.
As with all Oncolink poetry projects, our hope is to offer survivors yet another outlet for their feelings, using poetry as a vehicle for creative expression. We also cordially invite survivors and caregivers visiting these webpages to take this opportunity to read the poems, reflect on their own personal cancer scripts and gain new insights into the meaning of the cancer experience.
Now that's what I call poetry therapy.
I. The Good War
- Terrible Word - Patricia Wellingham-Jones
- 9. Healing - Alicia Ostriker
- With Right of Survivorship - Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad
- Remission - Joy Harold Helsing
- The Bad Man - Shannon Olin Kresge
II. Taking Control
- Getting Biopsy Results - Patricia Fontaine
- Making Chicken Soup - Jean Trounstine
- Dragonfly Rescue - Patricia Fontaine
- Absurdities to Live For - Carolyn Brandon
- Breast Cancer Support Meeting Tonight & Refreshments Will Be Served - Alysa Cummings
III. Sadness and Loss
- Haiku - Anne Silver
- Survivor's Guide to Post-Operative Body Image Issues - Alysa Cummings
- The Knife - Joy Harold Helsing
- Changing Partners - Anne Silver
IV. Love Story
- What You See Ain't What You Get - Patricia Wellingham-Jones
- Slow dancing at the Med-Inn - F. Richard Thomas
- Getting Well - Jean Trounstine
- The Last Thing I See - Patricia Wellingham-Jones
- Dreams of Being a Cowgirl - Cari Kastama
- Judgment Call - Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad
- Breastless - Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
- Business Not as Usual - Anne Silver
- What Healing Is - Patricia Fontaine