Doggerel Fails Me

I’m participating in a clinical trial for a new breast cancer vaccine. You can read in the Baltimore Sun about the last round, which treated terminal cancer patients, or watch a video of my doctor, Leisha Emens, talking about it here. My group is comprised of Stage III patients; in my case, I had a very aggressive kind of cancer which spread beyond my breast. I have been treated for it; I am currently in “remission.” That is, I “show no signs of disease.” But no one really knows if cancer cells are in my body, and that’s how it returns. And there are a lot of recidivists. So I, understandably, have high personal hopes for this vaccine.

A friend was asking me if we cancer patients talk while in the clinic, and I explained to her that the people in my study, some of whom fly in once or twice or even six times a week to participate, all attend at different times. There are also people who are participating in other studies. Then, there are all the “regular” cancer patients. I have never been in a cancer ward that is not insanely busy, and people don’t really chat with each other all that much. People tend to keep their eyes to themselves. It’s just too much suffering to take in at once. If you start looking around, you see deformities; you see families; you see the sadness on people’s faces. We’re all expected to be brave in front of the civilians, but in the waiting room or the phlebotomy room, or the chemo area, the masks seem to fall.

However, I did meet another patient recently whose story made me so sad I was motivated to breach the generically-named Meditation Room and hork up a prayer for her. I’ve kind of been saving the Meditation Room as a special treat. Yes, that’s right. I take my joys where I can find them. Wondering what I was going to find inside the modernish, oceanic stained-glass doors has entertained me quite a bit. What could it be? Would it be like the great chamber of the Wizard of Oz? Would there be a little waterfall? Some kind of aural mood-lighting, like whale songs or ocean waves? An altar, and if so, what would be on it? Or would it literally be a meditation room: I fantasized about opening the doors to a perfect Zen enclosure, all spic and span and sparse and somehow freshly-aired. There, waiting, would be a firm zabuton just waiting for me to perch upon it, close my eyes and surrender myself. My imagination gets me through a lot.

I looked sideways as I pulled open the heavy glass door, but no one even noticed I was going in. Did I want someone to wink or give me a thumbs-up or “Hork one up for me, Mary!” Probably. It’s always nice to be observed in acts of piety. The space was windowless, as predicted, and far smaller than I imagined. In one corner was a little bookshelf with major religious texts on it. There were some nature tapestries, hanging fake plants, a plaque dedicating the space on behalf of the parents of a dead patient. There was a Bible propped open to the book of Esther on a low table in the “altar” area. Then, on a table above it, where I imagine the tabernacle might be, was a plaque with the “What Cancer Cannot Do” poem. In calligraphy.

For those unfamiliar with it, this is a piece of doggerel you come upon not infrequently in the cancer business. Look, I don’t care if people want to wear pink ribbons and festoon their cars with cancer stuff and drink out of “Cancer Cannot” coffee mugs. Not my thing, but if it comforts others, that’s great. I am well aware that my sensitivity to the built environment sometimes makes me feel a little left out, but what can I say? I won’t go to an ugly church.

I grimaced and sighed. Because this “poem,” besides being badly written, just isn’t true. It comes in a lot of versions, both secular and “inspirational.” It goes something like this:

What Cancer Cannot Do

Cancer is so limited…
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the Spirit.
It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.

Cancer can do all of this stuff. (The last three, I’m not sure about.) I wonder if other people have had the same reaction to something which is supposed to be comforting, but to me, seems a bit accusatory since all of these things (except for the last three) have actually happened to me. Cancer, it turns out, can do a lot. This is just tomfoolery; why would you mess with people who may be dying like that? Why possibly make them feel bad if their hope has been shattered, their peace has been eaten away, their soul has been invaded, etc.? And here’s a crappy poem telling you you’re wrong?

But I backed down from the ledge: people must like “Cancer Cannot” or you wouldn’t see it so much. It was time to do what I had come for. I took a seat and said a prayer for my new friend, and for the parents who donated the Meditation Room and their daughter, and decided that I’d contribute my own book to the Meditation Room collection, seeing as how there was no poetry on the shelf. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson: not a lie in the bunch.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.