Preorder Breast Cancer: A Poem and Five Acts Now!


You can now preorder my new chapbook through Finishing Line Press.

Here’s the blurb from my media kit:

In one narrative poem, broken into five parts, Wergeland takes the reader through each phase of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment: “Diagnosis,” “Surgery,” “Chemo,” “Radiation,” and “Follow-up.” These stressful months are occasionally softened by the beauty of San Diego County, particularly the narrator’s own backyard. As she deals with side effects, she draws solace from her Zen practice, as well as the urban wildlife coming her way, though she does encounter a few rattlesnakes. In the end, this breast cancer patient must face the cold, albeit promising, reality of the brilliant technology at Moores Cancer Center, even as she finds the strength to fight for a new life

A Chapbook and a New Life

I am pleased to announce my longer poem, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, is scheduled to be published in chapbook format by Finishing Line Press. This project has become the perfect segue into my next phase of life, which will certainly include writing. Yet what’s in store sits calmly down the road holding an armful of question marks.

A year ago, I was recovering from a lumpectomy still waiting to learn if I would also need chemotherapy. I already knew radiation was in the cards. Around that time, I attended a Zen meditation retreat so I could “be” with the drama of breast cancer. I felt a lot of fear during those long hours, but ultimately relished some momentary peace. This was as well as I would feel for another seven months. I had my first chemo infusion on April 4, and my treatment plan continued on from there.

I didn’t often feel the pull to write during that time, but I did chip away at a longer poem, one I would ultimately break into five sections: Diagnosis, Surgery, Chemo, Radiation, and Follow-up. As I documented these experiences, I was occasionally startled out of the general stupor that had dropped over me. In such moments, I could feel what was riding beneath the surface. Unexpected emotion would arise, and I’d put words to what I hadn’t fully let myself define.

It wasn’t long before I got in the habit of heading to my computer right after a treatment, so I could record impressions before they left me. I never worked at it very long, just got stuff on the page. However, during periods of tedium (when I felt well enough to be bored), I tinkered.

Once the three pillars of breast cancer treatment were finally behind me, I needed to set the whole thing down. I let myself polish the poem for a few more weeks. Then I sent it out into the world, as if to say, “I’m done with this!” I was more than happy to move back into normal living—and everything around me seemed heightened. I wondered how long this poetic sensibility would last.

I do continue to encounter sparks of feeling that let me know I’m still processing things. Certainly, this occurred when I received my latest diagnosis, “no evidence of cancer.” Though I’m hopeful my doctors have nailed it, I’m probably not completely out of the woods. My medical oncologist will follow me closely for at least five years, during which time I’ll continue taking Arimidex to ward off new cancer growth. Now I’m trying to figure out what I can do to cheer this drug on. As I design my new life, I should probably ask myself, “What is good medicine?”

How does one maintain well-being? I know there are lots of opinions on the subject—books, videos, and audio recordings. And what is well-being, anyway? Fitness? Financial success? Doing good for others? Creativity? Love? A going with the flow sort of attitude? No doubt it depends on the person. Perhaps the courage to try things is the solution, finding a way to pound one’s fists through emotional ruts. Then there’s working on diet and exercise habits without becoming fanatical.

Developing an eye for opportunity also seems to be a good idea. I recently set up travel plans for a library conference in San Francisco, only to stumble onto a way to live (somewhat) cheaply live in North Beach for a month in an extended-stay situation. As I looked the possibility over, I briefly thought about writing in this buzzing environment and letting the adventures find me. Surely, this is something to contemplate after I take on my new role as retiree. In any event, stripping my life down to what I still want to do seems paramount right now. I don’t want to waste another moment of good health.


Post Election Blues


A cataclysmic shift in my personal life seems to be running parallel to the end of an era. As Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were battling on, breast cancer knocked me out of my routine. I eventually returned to work, only to wonder if I should seriously think about retiring. Age 54 is early for such musings—though not necessarily for a cancer victim who does not yet know if the cancer is completely gone.

Case in point, I watched my father eagerly move into his retirement when he was in his early sixties. Not long after that, he lost his life to leukemia and pretty much missed out on this passage. If I want a retirement at all, it may need to be now. I’ve got books to write, places to see, and people to spend time with. I’ve also been feeling the need to revamp habits that might be shortening my life—to become disciplined in ways that have often eluded me (yoga, meditation, singing, diet, and exercise). While I’m already feeling pretty good, memories of the weakness I endured during cancer treatment tend to surface and remind me these days are precious. I am now acutely aware of how physical well-being is dear. I may not have a lot of quality time left. Then again, I may defy the odds and live to be a healthy octogenarian.

Breast cancer did prompt me to follow the election more closely. My couch became a second bed, a place to crash when I wasn’t feeling well. Based on what I saw on television, I did not envision the outcome that actually occurred. I’ve been happy with the focus on equal rights and opportunity for all—kindness toward all. I want the country to keep working on that. I want America to become more compassionate and less catty. In my opinion, our country is too self-indulgent over unkind speech. It’s entertaining in a way, but it’s not loving. I do believe we are on this planet to transform our hearts. As a serious Zen student, I try not to participate in left-right, back and forth quipping. I’m not beyond it—I’ve done my share. This election season, however, I decided to make it a practice to refrain from picking on those I don’t agree with. Hand in hand with that aspiration came another centered on trying to note moments of judgement and anger over what others were saying. A judgmental attitude also pulls me away from developing a loving heart.

I have joined a conversation that occurs – not every moment – but here and there. Cancer survivors sometimes need to talk. The increase in breast cancer occurrence – the occurrence of all cancers – has become sobering. I recently finished my first breast cancer walk. I found the ritual whimsical and fun. I reveled in the opportunity to wear a Survivor T-shirt, and to see this word reflected on the backs of others. I enjoyed the spark in the air, the celebration, the happiness I felt around me. Diseases like breast cancer bring people together to express their better selves.

It’s hard not to add up the recent negatives and whine, “Why is this happening to me?” America’s political story is not going the way I’d like it to. Neither is the story of my life. Yet breast cancer has brought on surprising moments of inspiration, insight, and love. It has helped me strip away anything that has begun to seem insubstantial in the face of tougher challenges and limited time. I don’t always have to pack as much into my day. I try to give attention to things that matter. I’ve also been giving myself permission to breathe and take in the scene around me. Sometimes just listening to what is going on is enough. This sense of moving in slow motion may still be a side effect of cancer treatment that will go away as I return to 100% (should I be so lucky). Perhaps I’ll eventually stop finding such meaning in simpler moments and dive back into to crazy-busy mode. Or maybe it really is time to move toward the retiree mentality. Either way, remaining fully alive is my latest goal.

Break Between Cancer Treatments

A lot of people blog about the writing life. That was my intention when I first put up this site, which was actually designed to promote my work. Like everyone else, I thought I’d share my thoughts about writing as I finished pieces and ultimately sent them out. It wasn’t long before I broadened this aspiration to include any topic, not just writing. Push-button publishing provided a reason to come up with polished pieces—to see how far I could take short essays without turning to an editor. I quickly learned blogging is also a great way to work on facing one’s goofs and imperfections!

My most recent posts focus on cancer and recovery—I’ve been housebound for four months. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I hoped I might take advantage of my convalescence and get some writing done. That possibility quickly eluded me. After I learned I had a few positive lymph nodes, I experienced a fair amount of fear over what was coming. Chemo treatments brought on foggy thinking and genuine discomfort. The best I could do was stick to my goal of one blog post per month. I also chipped away at a poem about what else… breast cancer. It’s a long poem.

I had my last chemo infusion a few weeks ago—radiation is next. It will be roughly three more months before my life returns to normal (knock on wood). I’ve been doing everything I can to improve my chances of living cancer free for a long while. Aside from following my doctor’s orders, I take walks, eat well, and stay connected with people. Yet I’m getting cabin fever. It didn’t help that chemotherapy slowly brought on an aversion to my own home. I began associating my couch and environs with the chemicals running through my veins in a way that made me blame this living space, albeit irrationally, for what I was going through. I was willing to head almost anywhere—to get away from here. Fortunately, I’m coming out of the chemo cave. Chemo brain has already faded. Even better, I don’t have to be back at Moores Cancer Center for a few weeks. They’re giving me a breather.

I’ve just begun to feel well enough to revise an old novel manuscript. I’d actually planned to work on the project during the spring, but it was waylaid by this health drama. When I finally did pull the manuscript out, I wasn’t sure if I would connect with it. Yet I found myself digging right in, occasionally going into the zone. As the hours passed, I experienced some much need optimism. I began to muse, “Maybe I won’t lose anything.

I probably couldn’t have started a new novel during this time. I believe I have forward flow on the old one, because a lot of the work has been done. The scaffolding is in place, and that allows me to focus on style, plot, character development—new ideas. I don’t have to fight a story that’s not coming. I can play with this one to my heart’s content. So far, a sense of accomplishment has punctuated each writing session. That doesn’t always happen, believe me.

I hope to have the stamina to keep up this pace as I deal with radiation. Even if I don’t, I expect my newfound momentum will hold up during the impending break between treatments. It doesn’t matter how well I’m actually doing with the revision process. I’ve needed to feel passion for something in the middle of this upheaval, because chemotherapy dulls just about everything. Indeed, I’ve been yearning for a taste of what I was like before I barreled into this ordeal.

Cancer’s Mental Nadir

The other day I wistfully read AAA’s San Diego Westways from cover to cover. Though the rag offers some alluring suggestions for those about to pack their cars, I don’t normally need it to plan my summer. I’m usually on the road by now, headed to my second life on the Oregon Coast. Yet I willingly entered someone else’s summer, because imagination will have to do this season. My own summer will be about cancer treatment.

I’m afraid my imagination has also transported me back to my 30-something self, a woman who never pondered death or, for that matter, how aging would begin to change things. She was in her prime, enjoying the beautiful city of Seattle, seat of many adventures. I don’t usually wallow in nostalgia, wishing I was some other version of myself. Mainly, I’ve cherished the phases of my life, the different challenges I’ve worked through as I’ve gotten older. I like facing the unknown when a new chapter commences and rejuvenates my curiosity. Yet a longing to go back in time surfaced in me acutely one morning. I wanted to step into that 30-year-old’s blissfully unaware shoes.

It’s become harder to remember my normal life. Pleasant fantasies are one thing, but veering into psychological moments that bleed into the dark is a hazard chemotherapy patients need to negotiate. We’ve all heard people natter on about how antiquated chemotherapy seems, particularly in the face of modern medical wonders. As a cancer patient undergoing this adjuvant therapy, I’ve already reached an emotional nadir—I’ve found this course of treatment absolutely ridiculous, and I’ve truly wanted to quit. However, after going over the details of my personal situation with my doctors, and conducting some research on my own, I’ve become convinced I am not enduring this therapy in vain.

Early on I saw I would need to fight for emotional well-being during my treatments, particularly chemotherapy. My first round of chemo was the toughest from a mental standpoint. Physical discomfort brought on psychological discomfort. I received that infusion still in shock over the fact that I was dealing with cancer at all. It was only when I figured out the hardest days would eventually shift into days somewhat easier to manage, that I could begin to accept what was ahead of me.

Even so, my emotions have been riding closer to the surface ever since it was first suggested I might have breast cancer, over four months ago. I am still surprised when I feel them prod, reminding me of what I am going through. The other night I found myself crying while I was watching How to Make an American Quilt, a movie I’d seen years ago sans one tear. I didn’t see this as a bad thing necessarily—catharsis is healthy. It just wasn’t like me, and this, of course, made me speculate, “What’s happening to me?” Sometimes I wonder if wellness will ever return, if the clouds will lift.

This sort of gloom demands some conscious work. I try to remember the despair will eventually shift. If a dark mood doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, nudging one’s willpower is of the essence, even if it seems to be cowering. There are activities and exercises that can move the clouds. Getting started is the hardest part. I’ve forced myself to take a walk when I’ve wanted to do nothing. I’ve sat in mediation. I’ve met a friend for a matinee when I didn’t know if I’d feel like staying for the entire show. Indeed, I’ve discovered it is important to schedule regular outings, even if these activities feel abbreviated and not as satisfying as usual. I guess I’ve come to see cancer as a set of tests, physical and mental. The body learns how to deal with chemicals dripping into a vein for a period of more than three hours at a time. The mind discovers places of new resilience.

That said, there are days when all I can do is endure the fact that it doesn’t feel good. There are times when I just listen to the birds. When I do find myself experiencing a little more well-being in the face of chemical abnormality, I try to savor these bites of life. Not to draw to heavily from How to Make an American Quilt, but I’ve been stringing these moments together, constructing a net that will shore up this trial. When things do go back to normal, maybe I’ll discover some uncommon gratitude.

Surviving in the Chemo Cave

We humans like to organize things. First we have to figure out what we’re facing—then we work on making it easier. It’s no secret chemotherapy is daunting. During my initial consult with my medical oncologist, and subsequent sessions (one with a nurse practitioner, one with a pharmacist), I was handed a stack of informational sheets outlining the problems I might endure: low blood counts, diarrhea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, bladder irritation, constipation, nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, bone pain, fatigue, depression, hair loss, fluid retention, neuropathy, infection, poor appetite, loss of fertility, nail changes, and finally, garden variety pain.

Everyone is quick to offer reassurance—encouragement that does not feel overly comforting in the face of this list—suggesting each person handles chemotherapy differently. They are also quick to add, “Most people don’t experience all of these side effects.” Fortunately, this point has proven to be true for me (so far, anyway). I’ve probably experienced 11 of the 20 side effects noted above. With the exception of hair loss, none of these side effects has lasted, though they can recur when the next infusion cycle comes around.

The first week was a shocker, though. During several bouts of despair (I’ll check off depression here), I wondered how I was ever going to handle eleven more weeks. Yet by the third week, I was learning some side effects slowly lift. Week 3 in comparison to week 1 was much more, well… not fun, but at least livable. It included moments of gratification.

Now that I’m beginning the third week of the second cycle, I’ve noticed I’ve become bolder about testing my limits inside the chemo cave. For example, one morning I was feeling pretty terrible. All of my instincts were leading me to the couch for the day. Though it felt like a risk, I forced myself to attend a gentle yoga class. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt after the class was over. The fact that I was an active agent in this shift from misery to relative comfort, made me feel more in control for a change.

Not all of my experiments have worked out so well. On another occasion, I talked a friend into taking me to a breast cancer support group. I quickly discovered I wasn’t ready to hear about situations that had gone on and on. I didn’t want to hear about treatments that sounded worse than what I was dealing with. Nor was I prepared for the reality of what might happen if my medical provider didn’t get it all. Perhaps a breast cancer newbie group would have worked better. Then the discussion could have focused on the immediate shock of cancer, as well as strategies for dealing with what happens after the first diagnosis.

In the end, two strategies have proven paramount to me for survival in the chemo cave. The first includes designing an abbreviated way of structuring the day. I’ve developed a list of activities I can do some of the time for relatively short periods. These include, submitting my writings to publishers and literary agents, gardening, housework, meditation, yoga, walking, reading, writing, television, and movies. During the first week of a given cycle, I can’t do many of these things. But as the cycle progresses, I begin adding a few to my day. If I can get through 4 or 5, the day goes by faster. It also feels more fulfilling.

I do try to notice if my ambition is spiking. The way I see it, the point is not to try and be as productive as I normally am. The point is to add structure and variety to my day. So I don’t garden for more than 30 minutes at a time. My walks run 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how much fatigue I’m experiencing. I take long breaks between some of these activities, occasionally napping.

My second strategy has been to figure out what truly offers momentary pleasure. I must admit, during my cancer-free days, I reached for food when I needed to feel better. In the chemo cave, food is unappealing, and it truly feels weird to be unable to “medicate” myself in this way. As an aside, in order to eat something, I’ve had to figure out what will go down easy—I’ve consciously worked at eating a balanced and nutritional diet. However, eating does not make me feel better.

Yet there are seemingly insubstantial moments—moments I wouldn’t normally find so satisfying—that have brought on a sense of contentment. Weeding, for example. Showers and baths. Imbibing in cherry iced tea at Soltan Banoo. Attending a matinee with a friend (matinees are recommended over evening shows, because there are usually less infected people in the theater). I’ve learned to watch out for the little things that make me feel better, even if my mood is short-lived.

While all of this may sound obvious and easy, it’s not. It takes effort to stay organized when one is fettered by such limits. It takes effort to discover activities and approaches that might make a difference for one’s physical and mental health. During my first cycle, I wanted to sleep all of the time, but this has been discouraged by my medical provider because it disrupts the normal sleep cycle. Thus I have worked harder to stay off the couch during cycle 2.

Yes, it’s tough to remain connected to the world during a course of chemotherapy treatment. One’s place in the world becomes a reason to fight at all.

Facing the Cancer Marathon

I was first exposed to cancer’s terrible reach when I saw the film, Brian’s Song, a story focused on the fate of football player, Brian Piccolo—he died of testicular cancer. The movie came out in 1971, though I’m not sure when I actually saw it. It could have been a year later (I would have been ten). I still remember the shock of this drama hitting my tender child’s mind. It seemed like an exotic tragedy back then, one that only happened in the movies. Any revelation that someone around us had cancer was viewed as sobering. It was rare. Usually, the person was not expected to live.

Now I have cancer, and most people believe I will survive. I probably will. Since my suspicious mass was first discovered 7 weeks ago, I’ve been told numerous cancer stories—stories about how people existing within 6 degrees of separation have gotten through their trials and are now thriving. The cancer drama is no longer exotic. It is no longer rare. It has almost become a rite of passage.

It’s still cancer.

It is easy to look at the numbers, not to mention the possibility of medical treatment as fine as a brand new Cadillac, and shrug. So and so just worked through that. I, myself, have had this reaction more than once. Given the current cancer statistics, I think it’s a fair one. Unfortunately, cancer’s ubiquitous nature does not prepare the patient for the magnitude of the marathon she may be facing. It’s still cancer. And it’s still hard.

This is not to imply people are brushing me off—quite the contrary. I’ve been touched by the offers of help, the gifts—the good wishes, thoughts, and prayers. Kindness matters, of course, but it’s strange to be the focal point of this sort of attention. You want it, and you don’t want it. You think about what you will need to do to pay it all back.

The first few weeks of cancer testing wreaked havoc with my emotions, cranking them up on the inside in a way I’ve never quite faced before. I kept telling myself, “So and so got through it.” But the body has its own wisdom. The body has its own way of overriding the mind to make its message loud and clear. A killer is present. I’ve decided to take heed of this – to me – surprising sense of vulnerability and see what I can learn from it.

My surgery is already becoming a distant memory. I am currently resting and waiting for the next line of treatment. My surgeon has told me I’ll be facing radiation. The possibility of chemo still exists. Though the initial psychological intensity I experienced has finally become muted and seemingly more normal, it still shows up at regular intervals, reminding me not to take anything for granted. Everything in my life is going under the microscope. Yeah, yeah, I know. All those other cancer patients went through this, too.

I was already moving toward a major life change before I received my diagnosis—I’d been feeling the need to shake up my career and begin a new phase. These explorations are now on hold, because change has grabbed me. I don’t know what my life will look like after this is all over and I feel healthy again. Wellness needs to be my focus and this could ultimately include some new decisions regarding the way I have designed my life. I suspect I’ll have a couple of months to allow insights and ideas to bubble up as I’m dealing with the nitty-gritty of cancer treatment. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to listen to the birds, walk, dip into mystery novels, and watch spring arrive in my backyard. A wild bunny has been camped out there of late