CancerLand Bookshelf: The Cancer Poetry Project 2

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Author: Karin B. Miller, editor
ISBN#: 9781934690659
Information: Tasora Books, 2013 | $19.95 US
OncoLink Rating: OncoLink CancerLand Bookshelf

Let me share my bias right up front: I’m a Cancer Poetry Project cheerleader from way back when. Going all the way back, in fact, to when the first Cancer Poetry Project book was published (Fairview Press, 2001).

And as a major fan of the first anthology of poetry written by cancer patients, caregivers and clinicians, I’ve been on pins and needles waiting for the sequel. Ever since late 2012, when I first heard that a follow-up volume to the original Cancer Poetry Project book was in the works, I have been regularly visiting their website ( for updates. When would it finally be published? I love the original so much, using it regularly with all of my writing groups, and was eagerly awaiting Cancer Poetry Project 2.

Then early in 2013, I requested a review copy of Cancer Poetry Project 2 and with great anticipation started checking the mailbox every day. Remember that old saying that “good things come to those who wait?” Well, yesterday I found a small package postmarked Minneapolis, MN leaning up against my front door. Now, twenty-four hours later, after reading (and re-reading) all 274 pages, all I can say is this: Cancer Poetry Project 2 is absolutely worth the wait; editor Karin Miller has created another amazing poetry anthology that deserves a place of honor on the CancerLand Bookshelf.

Cancer Poetry Project 2 is organized identically to the first volume. It begins with poems by cancer patients, followed by writings from spouses, partners and lovers. The next section features poetry written by family members. The final poems are authored by friends and health advisors. Additionally, Miller includes a handy table of contents grouping the poems by theme (anger, coping, denial, diagnosis…) for easy reference. And as she did with the initial volume, Miller pairs each poem with an author annotation (writer’s age, cancer history, publishing credits), that clarifies and enhances the meaning of the accompanying poem.

As I did with the first volume, I immediately started flagging my favorite poems in Cancer Poetry Project 2 with post-its. My first bookmark was for the poem Have You. It made me smile because it lists less than helpful comments shared with Gwendolyn Morgan while she was receiving chemotherapy. Cancer patients can absolutely relate to this! Here’s an excerpt:

Is there a history of cancer in your family?
Your hair looks cute short.
Are you juicing your fruits and veggies?
…You look like a Buddhist monk, so serene,
…May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness.
Have you been learning a lot about yourself?
…If you have enough faith, you can beat this, I know it…
Are you, like, really depressed?
…I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

Another poem by a cancer patient, I Need Some Ritual, caught my eye. It poses an unspoken question: how do we deal with the physical changes and emotional fallout associated with cancer treatment? In the following excerpt, breast cancer survivor Jamie Steckelberg suggests one way to cope with her losses following a bilateral mastectomy:

I need some form of ritual
To let them go, to grieve
My girls. Wave them with sage,
Anoint them with oil,
Slick them with love.
Cup them now in your hand,
Gently caress bruised
flesh and bloody marks.
Soothe my scars, watch the sun
rise, let your tongue kindle and unearth
Desires. Tears soften their anger.
Tell them “Go in love,”
“Go in love.”

In the excerpt below from the poem Miracles, writer Paul Hostovsky vividly takes the reader into the examining room as the patient hears some bad news from his doctor:

…You can
don the humble johnny that closes in the back,
and when the doctor comes in with his numbers
which are your numbers, you can
not believe them either. You can let them fall from his lips
skim your ear, pool on the floor where your eyes
and his eyes have fallen.

Sometimes a few lines of a poem grabbed me and transported me back to a painful time. That was the case with Breakfast by Judith Goedeke. The poet, a kidney cancer survivor, paints powerful word pictures that aptly describe what it feels like to be a patient in treatment – words that will no doubt resonate meaningfully with anyone who has spent time in CancerLand:

the sky simply wandered away
the trees and stones walked off
when he said cancer
I started living in a nightgown
feeling like a nuclear test site
exploded, toxic, uninhabitable…

One of the last poems in the anthology moved me deeply, especially when I read the author annotation and realized that poet Carol Allis is not herself a cancer survivor. She wrote Warrior to celebrate the friends in her life who have experienced cancer. Read the excerpt below and see if you don’t agree that her words are fierce and altogether inspirational:

Here I am – take it or leave it – I’m fine with it,
stripped of the one thing
all women seem defined by.
I am a living, breathing icon
of wholeness.
I have lost what is falsely most prized
and – surprise – am still a human being.
No, more than that,
I am a walking soul, a triumph
of mind over matter,
A survivor…

Congratulations to Karin Miller for creating another classic that celebrates the healing power of poetry. One of her poets, Janet Meury, deserves the last word when it comes to making an argument for the value of writing cancer poetry: Writing is often an attempt to find or create meaning in life events and to share with others. It’s a human necessity to do this in one way or another. With a disease like cancer, which can be so lonely and terrifying, it’s important to reach out and share, so others can maybe feel less alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.