As part of my healing process after my initial breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, I started writing poetry about my breast cancer journey. My poems, which later were collected in my chapbook Repaired, were as Joy Harjo describes “openings in darkness.” One of the ways I humanized my breast cancer journey was to incorporate the language and narrative of my medical reports into my poems. This process offered me a way to reclaim language; instead of destruction, it was a process of construction. I used the poems to rally against being reduced to a number or a statistic. By reclaiming the clinical language of surgery and pathology reports, I found a deeper sense of autonomy and wholeness.
Here, I offer my poem, “Deconstructing the Right Breast” about my modified radical right breast mastectomy in May 2012. After the poem, is a narrative meandering about how the poem was constructed and what I was thinking. Let me know your thoughts and reactions.
Deconstructing the Right Breast
(all italics from REPORT OF OPERATION 05/07/12)
The patient was taken to the operating room
reliving 10th grade,
how she chased warm gin with milk.
Following induction of general anesthesia, I marked
out a circumareolar incision on the right breast
like a treasure map
to perform the mastectomy and axillary dissection
through the area.
Both breasts, arms, axilla, and abdomen
beautiful, pink, exposed
were prepped and draped in a sterile
white papery fashion
We infiltrated, black construction paper sky, pinpricked
to let stars shine through the right breast
with local anesthetic, a double shot
for tumbling down
a flight of dark stairs. A #15 blade
was used to make a skin incision.
Decision. Collision. Admission. Glisten. Forgiven.
Flaps were raised
like Buddhist prayer flags, their sadhana of non-attachment
superiorly, medially, inferiorly, and laterally,
all with electrocautery.
Superiorly to the clavicle, those lovely hollows
medially shining the sun to the sternum,
inferiorly to the rectus abdominis, two canals of muscle
laterally a bridge to be crossed to the latissimus.
The breast was taken off
In its place: thrumming, an embroidery
of sunflowers, thistle, mist.
The poem begins in memory. Perhaps the pre-anesthetic, which induces a type of drunken nausea, elicits the story of being drunk on warm gin in 10th grade. Perhaps it is fear or nervousness that invites that story up from the depths of my being, twenty-six years later. Perhaps it is the feeling of being out of control.
Following the end-stopped line—a moment to gain a sense of control?— the poem shifts perspective to an “I” speaker. This is the breast surgeon, a highly skilled and artful technician, who recounts his every move in the REPORT OF OPERATION. He, too, is a type of poet, knowing how to suture pieces together with the most delicate of threads. And here, my “marked” body becomes a treasure map for his adventure. There’s a certain anger in this line in that I feel like I have no choice to be marked and marred, cut and sewn.
As a way to look into this anger, I try to reclaim my body’s beauty, even though it is exposed, by using innocent words like “beautiful” and “pink.” Perhaps you still feel the anger? Or perhaps these words soften the experience. Just the day before this surgery, I had celebrated my 41st birthday, eating beautifully etched HAPPY BIRTHDAY in dark chocolate off a white china plate.
Next, I let the medical terminology do the heavy emotional lifting. War and medicine are big businesses. Infiltrated is the language of when an enemy spy surprisingly appears in the good guy’s hotel room. It is also the language for what was done to me—in this case, a simple needle numbing an already fully numbed breast.
Again, I go for innocence, an even deeper moment of childish delight. I used to poke holes in black construction paper and hold it up to the light. Only the tiny pinpricks of light would shine through. Here it is a universe of stars. But somehow the double numbness transports me back to a feeling of drinking warm gin. Again, I am stumbling, and fumbling, trying to find my footing in the darkness, but I cannot.
As I fall deeper into my anesthesia, the doctor chooses the precise instrument for the job. The razor-sharp quality of this incision is startling and notice how assonance works here: skin incision. Through the repetition of the short “i” vowel sounds, you can almost hear and see the surgeon’s first cut.
It is no coincidence that in medical descriptions, the surgeon holds a #15 blade “like a pencil with his index finger placed over the dorsal blade to establish absolute control.”
Here, the poet/surgeon goes to work. I am forever altered.
From here, the reader is immediately transported off the surgical table and into my whole life up until this point. Everything shifts into abstractions: Decision. Collision. Admission. Glisten. Forgiven. The reader, like me, will never see me the same again. Yet, the reader like me also has no choice but to be changed.
All surgeries and poems have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And at the end, you return to the beginning over and over again. This cyclical pattern, seen here and in life, is represented by the Buddhist prayer flags. Written many years after the actual surgery, this poem offers me a way to let go of my anger and shame. I have come to accept my nipple-less right breast. Perfect in its roundness and placement yet without feeling or purpose.
And from this point forward, the language shifts. The language of anatomy—superiorly, medially, inferiorly, and laterally–is the language of poetry. All these lovely lilting words are saying is up and down and side to side. And they provide a loving buffer before the actual horror of the next moment: the breast was taken off.
There is so much more to the story. But I needed to replace what was lost with something beautiful. This is not my doctor’s story or cancer’s story. It’s my story.
So I return to the natural world. I return to the cyclical nature of the universe’s thrumming, sunflowers, and mist. And for my last move, perhaps to gain a sense of control over my tangled emotions and my forever altered body, I embroider sunflowers. Now I am the one who stitches me whole.