Our eldest daughter is turning 13. Unfathomable. Time has flashed by so quickly.

That also means that my husband is about to observe his 13-year anniversary of successful cancer treatment. Thank God. Thirteen years and nary a blip on his health charts suggests he ever had anything seriously wrong with him.

At the time of his diagnosis I was four months pregnant; and dealing with both - expecting our first child and watching Thom endure his many long chemo days, plus surgeries - often seemed overwhelming. After his diagnosis, almost instinctively, I wrote a poem about our situation. It started like this:

   I write the words that are true:
My husband has cancer.
I write the words that may be true:
My husband is dying.

Writing those words was terrifying—and therapeutic. Even though I was a published poet, I had fallen out of the poetry habit. But pregnancy and cancer turned on the tap: And poetry offered the best way to crystallize my feelings and, sometimes, cope with the unimaginable.

Shortly after my husband ended his treatment and our daughter was born (the same month!), I launched a national cancer-related poetry anthology, inviting patients and survivors, spouses and partners, family members, friends and health-care practitioners to submit cancer-related poems. I felt sure that in publishing such a volume, the poems would affirm readers' feelings in dealing with cancer. 

At first, receiving a few envelopes in my mailbox was exciting, but as I returned again and again to a mailbox packed with envelopes, I was awed by how many of us write poetry to cope with and surmount cancer. From 1,200 submissions, my editorial team selected 140 of the best and The Cancer Poetry Project was published. The critical acclaim has thrilled all of our published poets—some well-known writers, others brand-new.

Since then, rarely a week goes by that I don't hear from readers about how particular poems touch them and how often they feel moved to write their own. This year, I'm happy to be receiving new entries for potential inclusion in our second volume. And again I feel reading each one the comfort a fabulous poem — whether heart-breaking, poignant or even hilarious — provides.


Another version of this column is included on Survivor's Review this quarter at www.survivorsreview.org. For more information about submitting poetry to The Cancer Poetry Project, visit www.cancerpoetryproject.com.

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Tags: #issues we face, #poetry, inspiration, survivors


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Comment by Rhiannon Hopkins on June 4, 2011 at 6:46am
Thanks for this, Karin, I am sure a lot of people will identify with so much of what you say. I am three years on from being diagnosed with breast cancer, not a poet, but I found my journal invaluable for keeping my mental and emotional balance, so therapeutic writing in another form.  Good luck with the new collection
Comment by Julie L. Moore on June 3, 2011 at 4:07pm
A wonderful story illustrating how much poetry does matter!
Comment by RaShaun D. Ellison on June 2, 2011 at 8:41pm
Greetings Karen, I have found that my best writings are "turned on" when I feel anxious or I'm overcome by some type of unforeseen chaos. I commend you for using your time of opposition to "crystallize" your feelings...(I like how you expressed that). I lost several family members to cancer and a dear friend, so I am excited with love, when I read or encounter stories of over comers. I think that by submitting to this project, if excepted, I will be able to release a part of myself, that needs closure for the loss of my grandfather. It would be a type of therapy or healing, dealing with the experience of such raw feelings. I have yet to write this piece of closure but, if I am not tardy, I would love to submit for this second project. Please consider me...Thank you for the inspiration...
Comment by Claudette J. Young on June 2, 2011 at 7:20pm

I'll have to send you my own poem, Karin. I've been through it too often to count, though not of my own body--only those of loved ones. And you're so very right in saying that therre is therapy in reading other accounts of experiences with this disease. Only those who've experienced can council or comfort those dealing with the situation, and poetry is a medium that seems to lend itself perfectly to that comfort.


Well done, Karin. Well done.

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