The Underwater Tug of Cancer

Karen Cavanaugh

A retired public health specialist and survivor of both thyroid and breast cancer pens a poem about her experiences with treatment and what it’s like to be “pulled under the water” by cancer.

From this far shore, I see her still

--the woman in the black jacket,

on that last day of the year,

wondering if with her friend’s crazy

driving through the snow

she would even make it to the cancer surgeon’s office.

I feel her pain as she runs into her pregnant neighbor

headed to the obstetrician’s office instead.

She holds a notepad and pen. And she writes,

because writing is all she can do.

“Do have breast cancer” she writes.

And with that, she lets go of the hope

that carried her through the past 10 days

--as ‘possibly’ became ‘probably’ became ‘positively.’

And she keeps on writing,

word after word tumbling out

in a powerful language she does not understand

—well differentiated tumor, T1C, ER-PR positive,

lumpectomy, IV, radiation, biopsy,

six weeks, five days, doubling time,

tamoxifen, lifetime risk, genetic counseling, HER2/neu,

bone scan, PET scan

and on and on and on.

I see her then, when she thought health insurance would sustain her,

before she discovered that it was instead the chain of kindness that encircled her,

before she found out what it was like to be bald,

before the drugs in her veins turned her into an old woman overnight,

before she joined a fellowship she did not choose but to which she is honored to belong,

before she realized how much of yourself you can lose and still be you.

I hold the paper she wrote that day,

but the words have lost their power.

They mark a journey already taken,

one that pulled her, in chains, against her will

--underwater, thrashing,

through rocks and waves and weeds.

Where she landed looks a lot like where she started,

and so does she.

Except that somewhere underwater, she learned to swim in the current

and to recognize others who can do the same.

It’s not a skill she often uses,

and so long out of water, she is beginning to forget.

But if you are ever pulled underwater, she will try to recall it

and share it with you.

And she will stand ready to greet you on this shore

as you too make the crossing.

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