My Cancer Experience in Poems


My life in poems - check it out!

John Smelcer image

In the fall of 2022, Dr. John Smelcer was diagnosed with stage 2 non-specific non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Over the next six months, he was hospitalized one week of every month in order to receive chemotherapy and immunotherapy. On a sunny day in early February 2023, he rang the bell on the Oncology Ward. Throughout his ordeal with cancer, Dr. Smelcer wrote poems about his experiences. The heartfelt collection of poems, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, is now available online.


This Christmas, I don’t care about

a stuffed stocking hanging on the fireplace mantle

or colorful gifts piled beneath the tree.

What I really want is for this tumor to go away.

Let it never come back.

Let me live to accomplish some dreams.

Let me love and be loved.

I still have things I want to do,

places to go,

plans to complete

and new friends to meet.

Some things in life matter more

only when faced with losing them forever.


To pass time, I sometimes played chess during hospital stays.

Despite my chemo brain, I could still beat most challengers.

On the last day of six excruciating months of chemo,

Death comes and we play a game. It was the first time

I’d seen him since we ate churros in the desert.

Several times, he had me against the ropes, but I fought back,

took all his pawns, killed his queen, and chased his king into a corner.

“Checkmate!” I gloat, toppling his king. “You lose.”

As a sullen Death departs, he stops and glares over his shoulder.

“You know, Johnny Boy,” he hisses with his forked tongue.

“This isn’t over. I’ll be seeing you someday.”

“Someday,” I reply with a smirk as I do a little happy dance.

“But not today."


I raised a flag on the defeated heap of my cancer.

I won the war, but I didn’t win every battle.

My symptoms began with pain in my left hand

from the tumor strangling the nerves in my armpit

and sinking its spikey teeth into the sheathing.

Like a scar that attests to a once bloody wound,

I have lost some use of my left hand.

My pinky finger has lost most of its feeling.

The other day, I burned it

taking a hot metal tray out of the oven.

I never even noticed the second degree burn

until I saw the blister the next day.

The price I will forever pay for conquering my cancer

is that I may never feel my wife’s skin quite the same way

as I used to whenever I reach out to touch her.


I barely made it through the punishing chemotherapy.

I’m still here—

weak and wasted, but here.

You want my advice on how to survive cancer?

Here it is:

Breathe in and out.

Don’t die.

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