Being the Drama of Breast Cancer

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Last month I pointed out how the theme of renewal serves as turn in my forthcoming chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts. Zen practice is another strand moving through this memoir-in-verse. I did not attempt to write a dharma book. In fact, I’d very much prefer the genre label of Breast Cancerto be poetry or memoir-in-verse, if there must be one at all. However, I do have a Zen practice, such that it is, and I can’t help it when Zen themes creep into my work.

During the course of breast cancer treatment, I held on to a number of lifebuoy rings: yoga, movies, friendship, short walks, gardening, and most of all, the couch. As I’ve studied Zen for the last twenty years—ten with the late Charlotte Joko Beck—I also continued to make an attempt to practice with what was happening to me. Life as it is.Joko encouraged a daily sitting practice for most of her students. She also urged them to learn from ordinary life—the worldly stuff they encountered as they went about their days. While she is not named in the book, her influence on the speaking agent is present. She wanted her students to be with their life as they were working or driving or spending time with loved ones. If she’d been alive in 2016, I’m guessing she would have coached me to be the drama of breast cancer.

During my time with Joko, I learned to how stay with difficult mind states, to turn into them, watch them move around, play out—hurt even. I learned how to rest in the middle of pain or anger or fear. In time, I found even the toughest emotions and sensations do not hold firm. I would ask questions like: What is pain (physical or emotional)? What is anger? What is fear? In watching what my own mind was doing, I started to see how nothing is fixed, including what I felt. I also began to notice how being attached to any particular sensation, emotion, or drama held me back, tying up my life. Of course, this all sounds well and good, but it is far from easy. I can become attached to little scenes or big ones (little hurts or big ones)—like everybody else.

I did not sit every day as I moved through eight months of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, though I did pull out my meditation bench on occasion. When I could muster the effort, I worked on being present with my daily life. This proved to be a lot more difficult within a cloud of “chemical hum.” Yet even during chemotherapy, there was a place for Zen practice. My nurse practitioner actually encouraged me to structure my days during this difficult time. The couch was allowed and expected, but she also wanted me walking and coming up with an abbreviated schedule. Anything that reduced stress was encouraged. My nurse practitioner liked the idea that I had a meditation practice. As for being with life as it is, I found I was better able to be present as I underwent radiation therapy.

Now, when I look back on those months, I can still enter the darker emotions I experienced—the crazy fear that came over me when I first learned I had a suspicious mass, the days that called for holding on. Yet I do not feel I lost my life during that year. In some ways I moved more deeply into it, and the simple pleasures came to mean more. I can recall the fullness of them—many of my cancer memories remain illuminated. Some of these moments in are depicted in this poem.

 

 

A Different Sort of Spring

Promoting my work at the Tucson Festival of Books

Promoting my work at the Tucson Festival of Books

I wrote my chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, to document what it feels like to go through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. The act of writing the poem actually illuminated aspects I could not fully see until I grappled with them on the page. For example, there is a convoluted magnitude to what it takes to knock out this disease. I didn’t understand how complicated the process was, until I was the one sitting in the infusion chair, where I occasionally tinkered with the verses that would become this chapbook. It felt like I was moving toward loss, if not death. In the poem, I wanted to suggest renewal is also possible:

It is said Persephone
climbed out of the land of the dead
to give us spring.
I’ve returned to autumn,
to Santa Ana winds;
to regular screens—
annual mammograms
to see where I am.
Soon I’ll be eligible
for 55 and up housing,
some senior discounts.

For me renewal has meant retirement, semi-retirement really. Yesterday, I found myself one of the youngest people in a theater full of seniors. We were there for a morning (two dollar) screening of Sometimes a Great Notion, recently digitized. Last month, I toured Sicily with a group of Rick Steves sightseers—most were retired. Again, I was one of the youngest participants, as it is the off-season and retirees are more likely to travel this time of year. While I had a wonderful time, I’m still finding it difficult to see myself as one of them. This phase of life came upon me too fast, with breast cancer breathing down my neck. I could have kept working, but I wanted to rethink the precious time I have left—be that 5 years or 45.

I recently read an inspiring report in the January/February issue of AARP Bulletin, “Great Second Careers — 16 People who Found Success, Security and Happiness after 50 with a New Job.” These 16 folks have earned some jaw-dropping awe from me. The AARP Bulletin profiled workers who are relishing new careers—tough ones, too. The rag even featured a physician, who graduated from medical school at the age of 48 and began applying for fellowships at 58.

I don’t need to be a doctor, but I suspect I may decide to let go of that “retired” label at some point. Working on the chapbook has certainly played into my push toward renewal. Maybe I can finally begin to say I have a writing career. Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts is a good first step. Finishing Line Press has helped with the publicity, sending out 100 postcards to plug my new book. I’ve come in behind them, learning the art of promotion as I go. While I’m not sure what approach will actually bring the best attention to the book, I have been taking stabs at email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I’ve got a media kit on my website. I’ve sent out postcards, too.

I don’t expect to make money on this project. In fact, I probably won’t. According to the terms of the deal, Finishing Line pays in copies, not royalties—unless my sales shoot above the 1000 mark. It appears I’m in good company on the money issue. I recently listened to Ron Hogan give a talk on the writing life. A lot of what he said, I’d heard before. Yet I was happy to be reminded writing is a labor of love for most people, even many I’ve come to admire. In the end, the act of writing has to matter more than possible reward. While I’ve always taken my writing seriously, I’ve hedged my bets on feeling successful by also contributing to the library field. Now I have no excuse for not facing what I can do as a writer.

I’m feeling pretty normal these days, even with daily doses of Anastrozole, which can have upsetting, if not debilitating, side-effects. My energy level is strong. I managed to bounce back from this season’s nasty set of bugs (I did catch something on that airplane ride to Palermo, but it didn’t ruin my trip). I don’t take this vibrant sensibility for granted. I can still remember feeling like I was losing spark as Taxotere/Cytoxan flowed through my veins. Now I’m wondering if my doctors have succeeded in saving my life.

Preorder Breast Cancer: A Poem and Five Acts Now!

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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