Writing My Way Through Cancer
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003
ISBN 1 84310 113 0
Writing My Way Through Cancer is a fleshed-out diary of the year when Myra Schneider was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. It records her experience in diary entries, writing exercises, notes for poems and finished poems . These show the way she used writing to cope and record what else was going on in her life, also the fact that she finished writing the last third of a long narrative poem which had no connection with her illness. The focus is very much on the writing process. In the belief that writing can be very therapeutic the author has also included a section of ideas for writing which those affected by cancer or trauma of any kind might find supportive.
Extract 1 (soon after the diagnosis)
I owe it to myself to manage my panic and make this a life experience not a death experience; to concentrate on possibilities; to grab every moment of life that I can; to use what has happened for writing…
These drops are not drops. The weak heads are not weak – not dropping, not drooping. They are hanging bells with thin rims of green on their delicate undersides. They have pushed through the lumpy earth and stand unmoved by the thrusting wind, the bites of cold air. They are stronger than cones of buddleia, than the can-can poppy – a brazen girl kicking. Very small, they bend but do not give way, they refuse winter, silently they remind me it can end.
(poem written just over three weeks later)
As I stare at the small
white heads, their circular bed
set in a bald frontage,
the afternoon swells
with distress. I imagine picking,
imagine pressing layers
of green-rimmed petals
to my chest to cover
the emptiness which will shout
when I lose my left breast.
Though they look weak
beneath a bush’s crude
black spread of branches
these are not drops, crystals,
bells that ring thinly,
not hangdog ninnies,
timid girls running out of breath.
They have heaved through
weighty clay lumps,
speared freezing air
to bloom without summer’s prop –
are more daring
than can-can poppies,
fiercer than the swimming
open-mouthed fear that wants
to devour me. They stand
uncowed by the north wind,
its sudden bluster, cruel bite.
And as I move on each flower
fills me like an annunciation.
Extract 2 Three months later (after receiving a letter from poet friend Grevel Lindop about the poems I wrote in the weeks after my mastectomy which became a sequence, Repair)
Grevel said he thinks the sequence contains some of my best poems. He also opened up a new line of thought for me with this: ‘When I came to the poem The Cave where a voice reproaches you with “one-breasted” and “hardly a woman” I found myself thinking: “Ah but in ancient myths the most powerful women of all were, precisely, one-breasted. I wondered if you had looked at or might find it fruitful to look at the mythology surrounding the Amazons. They were the subject of fascination and a certain amount of fear to ancient Greeks, at least and a very frequent image in graphic art, especially vase painting. And although very martial they were certainly not thought of as unfeminine but rather in some odd way as too feminine for comfort… As I read Grevel’s words I had a sense of revelation – of a door opening to show a completely new vista.
(Less than three weeks later I had written a poem.)
For four months
all those Matisse and Picasso women
plants, balconies, Mediterranean sea, skies
have taunted me
with the beautiful globes of their breasts as I’ve filled
with pages of scrawl, with fecund May, its floods
of green, its irrepressible
wedding-lace white, buttercup gold,
but failed to cover
the image of myself as a misshapen clown
until you reminded me
that in Greek myth the most revered women
were the single-breasted
Amazons who mastered javelins and bows, rode
horses into battle,
whose fierce queens were renowned for their femininity.
Then recognising the fields I’d fought my way across
I raised my shield
of glistening words, saw it echoed the sun.
“Writing My Way Through Cancer is a lot more than an account of battling with illness. It takes the reader on an incredible journey through a poet’s mind, demonstrating how every incident, observation and emotion becomes grist to the writer’s mill…This is an inspirational read, made so by the author’s frankness, warmth and honesty, which breathe through the pages. It is a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions, harnessed in a rich seam of poetry.”
Alison Chisholm, Writing magazine.
“Writing My Way Through Cancer is about a poet harnessing her work to deal with illness and with herself. It is also about a woman struggling on a day-to-day basis with human frailty: fear, anger, shame, guilt, exhaustion, panic. This will resonate with many readers, as it did with me.”
Lucy Hamilton, ARTEMIS poetry magazine.
“In this highly readable book about a personal way of dealing with potentially life-threatening illness, we follow the author, broadcaster and acclaimed poet Myra Schneider through her journey from diagnosis to recovery from breast cancer. One of the book’s special gifts is to make us feel we are engaged in an absorbing conversation with a friend, a friend who is full of courage, sensitivity and hope but manages at the same time to be completely honest about terror, anger and times of darkness that such a diagnosis brings.”
Mary Sheepshanks Caduceus
“Diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2000, poet and author Myra Schneider turned to her writing to help her come to terms with the experience. In this thoughtful and readable book, she illustrates how writing helped her through diagnosis, treatment and recovery as well as the change in self-image following her mastectomy. In her frank expression of intense fear, anger and doubt, Myra Schneider includes notes and finished poems written during her period of recovery. She also offers practical support in the form of therapeutic writing suggestions for cancer sufferers, whether they are experienced authors or have never written before.”
Leicester Review of Books