In writing the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer,” (featured on Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Blog) I am indebted to Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” His poem inspired me, and the form of his poem offered me a container to hold thirteen different perspectives of metastatic breast cancer (MBC). I dove deeply into the poem’s language, questions, and ideas, which then helped to fuel my own poem.
Below is a narrative explanation of each numbered stanza in the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer.” I encourage you to read the poem and the explanation. Then, if you’re feeling inspired or moved, I encourage you to share your own metaphor.
This image is how I imagine MBC looks to other cells. Because cancer cells have poorly defined boundaries, they are distinct from other healthy cells.
This image is what I imagine an oncologist might be experiencing. At one point, MBC is under control, patched, and painted. Then, at another point and despite everyone’s best efforts, the water begins to leak through.
This is my perspective of MBC. We are one. We live and love together. The image of a sealed love letter evokes this relationship. The letter is sealed but never sent, so it contains all of love’s unspoken words.
The image of the messy room is how I imagine a healthy breast looks at a breast with cancer. The cluttered room is familiar yet in disarray. After my early-stage diagnosis, a doctor explained to me that once I had finished nursing, the internal ducts of my breast failed to get “cleaned up.” That idea has stuck with me.
This image is how I imagine bones see MBC. They see metastasis as icy winter potholes, which need fixing. And the brain hears metastasis as a shambles–meaning a “state of total disorder”–of echoes.
This is chemotherapy’s perspective. A fantasy image. The open and cupped hands are waiting to be filled. But chemo is built to target rapidly dividing cells, so it is indiscriminate. So the hope is to fill the hands, but chemo wreaks havoc on so much more.
Here’s where I imagine another mother with MBC. Though she is trying to be tender with her child, the hand is calloused and rough from the work it takes to stay present with ourselves and our children when we are living with MBC.
This image is a from a child’s perspective. Interestingly in Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” he writes, “I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.” What I see in these lines is that children like the blackbird see, hear, and know things that we may not think they know. In my image, I wanted the origami sculpture to represent a child’s internal fear of mortality and loss. Children always find ways to show that they are vulnerable. A folded piece of paper reminds me of this.
This is how I imagine a partner and/or spouse may see MBC. Partners/spouses often play the double role of caregivers, too. I imagine this to be an emotionally tricky place because they want to be supportive and useful, and yet they have their own sadness, even anger. I wanted the image to encapsulate both of those energies.
This image is from a sibling’s perspective. I imagine that a sibling may wonder: Why my sister and not me? Biological siblings only share about 50% of the same DNA, so there is plenty of room for difference. Environmental factors, lifestyle choices, and life experiences also contribute to changes in a person’s cellular structure. This image conveys an understanding of both the shared and individual genetic makeup of a sibling living with MBC.
Again, this is MBC from my perspective, this time as someone both living with MBC and a friend to many who are living with and dying from MBC. There’s a beauty and complexity in being both. There’s also a deeply shared understanding of what these friends are going through.
This is from another person living with MBC’s perspective. The mourning dove’s song is the harbinger of summer. It is also a mournful song, so I am never sure if I am hearing about the end or the beginning of something or someone.
This final image is from a writer’s perspective. Each spring and summer morning right before dawn, the bird’s have noisy and raucous conversations outside my window. Then, when the sun rises, there’s a quiet that fills the air with light . This is when my heart fills with gratitude. I am alive!
Read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer” here. Share your metaphor.