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Finding Poetry in Cancer

When Kyle Potvin learned she had breast cancer at the age of 41, she tracked the details of her illness and treatment in a journal. But when it came to grappling with issues of mortality, fear and hope, she found that her best outlet was poetry.

How I feared chemo, afraid

It would change me.

It did.

Something dissolved inside me.

Tears began a slow drip;

I cried at the news story

Of a lost boy found in the woods …

At the surprising beauty

Of a bright leaf falling

Like the last strand of hair from my head

Ms. Potvin, now 47 and living in Derry, N.H., recently published “Sound Travels on Water” (Finishing Line Press), a collection of poems about her experience with cancer. And she has organized the Prickly Pear Poetry Project, a series of workshops for cancer patients.

“The creative process can be really healing,” Ms. Potvin said in an interview. “Loss, mortality and even hopefulness were on my mind, and I found that through writing poetry I was able to express some of those concepts in a way that helped me process what I was thinking.”

The Well Column

In April, the National Association for Poetry Therapy, whose members include both medical doctors and therapists, is to hold a conference in Chicago with sessions on using poetry to manage pain and to help adolescents cope with bullying. And this spring, Tasora Books will publish “The Cancer Poetry Project 2,” an anthology of poems written by patients and their loved ones.

Dr. Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, says he uses poetry in his practice, offering therapy groups and including poems with the medical forms and educational materials he gives his patients.

“It’s always striking to me how they want to talk about the poems the next time we meet and not the other stuff I give them,” he said. “It’s such a visceral mode of expression. When our bodies betray us in such a profound way, it can be all the more powerful for patients to really use the rhythms of poetry to make sense of what is happening in their bodies.”

On return visits, Dr. Campo’s patients often begin by discussing a poem he gave them — for example, “At the Cancer Clinic,” by Ted Kooser, from his collection “Delights & Shadows” (Copper Canyon Press, 2004), about a nurse holding the door for a slow-moving patient.

How patient she is in the crisp white sails

of her clothes. The sick woman

peers from under her funny knit cap

to watch each foot swing scuffing forward

and take its turn under her weight.

There is no restlessness or impatience

or anger anywhere in sight. Grace

fills the clean mold of this moment

and all the shuffling magazines grow still.

In Ms. Potvin’s case, poems related to her illness were often spurred by mundane moments, like seeing a neighbor out for a nightly walk. Here is “Tumor”:

My neighbor walks

For miles each night.

A mantra drives her, I imagine

As my boys’ chant did

The summer of my own illness:

“Push, Mommy, push.”

Urging me to wind my sore feet

Winch-like on a rented bike

To inch us home.

I couldn’t stop;

Couldn’t leave us

Miles from the end.

Karin Miller, 48, of Minneapolis, turned to poetry 15 years ago when her husband developed testicular cancer at the same time she was pregnant with their first child.

Her husband has since recovered, and Ms. Miller has reviewed thousands of poems by cancer patients and their loved ones to create the “Cancer Poetry Project” anthologies. One poem is “Hymn to a Lost Breast,” by Bonnie Maurer.

Oh let it fly

let it fling

let it flip like a pancake in the air

let it sing: what is the song

of one breast flapping?

Another is “Barn Wish” by Kim Knedler Hewett.

I sit where you can’t see me

Listening to the rustle of papers and pills in the other room,

Wondering if you can hear them.

Let’s go back to the barn, I whisper.

Let’s turn on the TV and watch the Bengals lose.

Let’s eat Bill’s Doughnuts and drink Pepsi.

Anything but this.

Ms. Miller has asked many of her poets to explain why they find poetry healing. “They say it’s the thing that lets them get to the core of how they are feeling,” she said. “It’s the simplicity of poetry, the bare bones of it, that helps them deal with their fears.”
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