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The Shadow of Cancer

Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, "My Shadow" reminds this cancer survivor about her diagnosis.
PUBLISHED July 05, 2018
Jane has earned three advanced degrees and had several fulfilling careers as a librarian, rehabilitation counselor and college teacher. Presently she does freelance writing. Her articles include the subjects of hearing loss and deafness, service dogs and struggling with cancer. She has been a cancer survivor since 2010.

She has myelodysplastic syndrome, which is rare, and would love to communicate with others who have MDS.
As a child, I loved the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson titled “My Shadow.” I have often remarked to others that the “shadow” of cancer is ever present and hovering over me. No matter how healthy I feel, I know that my disease is incurable and always lurking in the background – like a shadow does!

Recently I looked up this supposedly child’s poem, and it was striking how effectively the word “shadow” and “cancer” could be substituted for each other. I would like to share a line or two.

“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me.
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see…
For he sometimes shoots up taller than an Indian rubber ball,
And he sometimes goes so little that there’s none of him at all.”

I think most cancer survivors would agree that this is what cancer is like. We don’t understand why we have it or what the use of it is. Sometimes the shadow (and the treatments like radiation and chemo and surgery) looms larger than life, and other times, the treatments work and we feel better.

My cat is hilarious and loves to chase his shadow. His favorite place is when he is in his litter box and grabbing the wall with his paws, constantly trying to figure out where it comes from and why he can’t catch it. I think of this poem when I watch him!

Another couple of lines from Stevenson’s poem are as follows:

He (shadow) stays so close behind me; he’s a coward you can see,
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me.

We sometimes think the cancer is a coward and has been conquered by treatments. Many times it is – but sometimes when we least expect it the coward returns.

The last stanza of this poem is one of the most interesting.

One morning, very early, before the sun was up.
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup.
My lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Sometimes the cancer doesn’t fight the treatments anymore and disappears, which is what we all want.

I think it is helpful to compare the cancer to a shadow. It lurks, it looms large, it becomes small and it disappears. But we need to fight it. Cancer is invisible, but a shadow is not – unless it is eventually asleep in the bed! It fascinates me how a “simple” child’s poem can describe the monster of cancer so well. And we can all pray our treatments conquer it!
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