The Color of Cancer


For this the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we the stage four terminally ill are allotted one whole day, October 13th. I was diagnosed de novo (from the beginning), as my genetics, dense breasts, and missed diagnoses led me to my prison cell on death row on March 25th, 2015 at 4:30 am. I remember that moment like a mother remembers the time she gave birth to her child. And the moment we’re born our life begins ticking away – life is terminal. Yet I know what it feels like to know I’m going to die and from what. It’s no abstraction like it is to someone who has said to me, “well, we’re all going to die someday.”

You’re right. But the truth is you can make long-term plans, can envision your future, can see a purpose to your life. I’m jealous of you. Don’t talk to me about your unhappiness over your wrinkles or getting old or having a breast reduction. I don’t want to hear about it – be happy with your beauty. Beauty lies inside all of us. Accept the joys of aging with grace, just as I’ve accepted my death sentence. I may have a week or a year or seven. Who knows. But don’t steal my #hope. Don’t take away #love. Don’t leave me in #isolation. Look deeply into my eyes, where beyond how good I look you’ll really see my #pain.

So in honor of this “pinktober” I leave you with my poetry. My writing defines me now as does my stage four cancer. I hope it’s a poem that stays with you because I’ve laid it out without much metaphor to hide what’s inside and hurts with pain so deep it’s beyond the soul. Peace peace, beloved body heal thyself I pray each night… as a dear woman I knew would say while holding my tear soaked face. She dedicate her life to healing those with terminal cancer and we lost her two years ago – she’s with the other angels who love us along with those we’ve lost. And one more is one too many.

My ugly secrets hide beneath my thin skin. Am I disdainful, dreadful? I must die from my sins.

Infinitely fighting in my lonely final tour, I miss the cut by a late stage four.

A survivor staring into the eyes of the dead, guilty for it’s them and not me instead.

Now home I’m stitched together a drain in my gut, my heart beats in inside the death of a thousand cuts.

Side by side in an endless parade, seeing you lockstep the line shorter each day.

Fading away in the testbeds of science, fitted with armor in a dangerous alliance.

Open up our uniforms – we’re memorialized by pink scars that magic potions materialize.

I return home to live like a bird in a cage, with an open door I won’t fly…too afraid.

Try to coax my mind from this prison by tying pink ribbons. Those around my trunks – drawn scars from incisions.

Please just turn tearfully away from my door. It’s your fear of emptiness, leaving burnt offerings a taste I deplore .

I found a card you’d attached to the devils food cake. The note simply said: “with love, please keep the plate.”

In the suburban foliage I am incinerated, by the needle of agent orange my body’s obliterated.

With unsteady eyes I scan the papers for new a strategic position. Yet hiring the dying requires expensive supervision.

I find work as a suicide bomber and spend my days toiling in my pajamas.

I want to wear my cancer on my head, and I turn up my collar, so you won’t notice the scars I wear medals of honor.

My arms decorated by kisses of needles and iris colored bruises that came with my freedom.

Yet I cover myself in an empresses’ new clothes, embroidered with test results and dyed the color of roses.

I’m too ugly for a bouquet of flowers that I’m too pretty to receive in the 11th hour.

And ‘neath all this painted on beauty for which you judge me: Looking too good you begrudge instead what you can see.

My lies hide inside tunnels, only discovered in pink undertones, which light up and contrast with my beautiful bones.

Your eyes downcast rolling inside your shaking head in disbelief, stealing the last of my pride like a thief.

To you I’m just another junkie begging for a day without rain, without any pills that ease my pain.

You find me anonymously in an infusion chair , sitting and sweating and praying you only stare.

I am the Marine who comes home in a body bag without any glory, no pink procession, no honorable discharge, no war stories.

How you turn and march away, goose-stepping in formation waving goodbye to my face with your dollar donation.

I bravely smile at you searching blindly for another word for death as you back away, guilty.

Looking down my rifle’s sight, I find myself in the mirror, knowing I may not find tomorrow.

Don’t wonder where I’ve gone and don’t answer my cries, instead live on in my legacy and say, “goodbye.”

14 comments on “The Color of Cancer”

  1. I’m so looking forward to reading more of your poetry, and watching the upcoming episode of brain cancer diaries! You’re amazing, my friend. 💕

  2. Such a powerful poem, and an emotional read, Ilene. I wasn’t a fan of poetry until now.💕

    1. Gogs I find poetry is a therapy as all art -expressions with a canvas of lined paper and words in place of paint. The images that the readers conjure and their interpretation makes the poem theirs too. As I’ve written about before, writers are time travelers – they speak now to the future and the reader gets to go back in time. And the butterfly effect brings them both together in a timeless non-dimensional way. It lives beyond the writer and changes the reader – every cell of their body; for if poetry does its job then this is the result. I used very little metaphor, choosing not to candy coat my truth. I only hope when I’m gone this virtual ink will live long after and bring a feeling of hope as well as a less lonely place for future cancer endures.

      Welcome to poetry. May you find more out there that touches your heart and leaves you with a feeling of enrichment for having seen the huge feelings into an economy of words with a scaffolding of form.

      What a truly amazing compliment.

      PS watch for Rudy’s brain cancer diaries vlog on cancer and poetry…

    1. Rist-,I am so very grateful for you sharing this poem with your readers as well. It’s reassuring to know that my words reached your heart deeply enough – and it was important to make this accessible rather than full of heady metaphor to paint a real picture in the minds eye of the reader as to how it feels when the emotional fallout of having a terminal diagnosis reaches my prefrontal cortex instead of holding my anger back with a smile. It’s just not as easy as “you got this!” Or the battle language, which I am against using with regards to any metastatic cancer – we don’t lose a fight – we don’t fail the medical weapons given to us – they fail to work for us. 100% of us will die as we run out of options to keep our diseases stable or inactive at best. The only way in which I may say it’s like a war is in that we lose and mourn our comrades.

      1. I guess my reaction to your poem was caused by the real picture. Metaphors make, I think, a distance. If it was full of metaphors I may not have reacted the way I did…
        I agree with you when it comes to the battle language and I am totally against it too. It’s like we decide to give up, but we all want to live as long as possible…..

        1. Yes I completely agree – it’s a budget of words – doing more with less and saying only enough and no more than necessary I arrive with my cart full of what the recipe calls for…the hunger that underlies poetry when it works well is not from starvation but for the want of swallowing the sobs released without meaning to become a translation of emotional pathos.

    1. Kristie as one of my co bloggers who I consider talented and who inspire me to keep writing yours is such a beautiful compliment. Thank you much love and strength during this BCAM❤️

    1. Oh goodness your blog is amazing this month my dear! I appreciate you taking the time to read and shoot me a comment. I feel like it’s important for the metsers to show the rough truth as well the hopefulness we all share. Much love,

  3. This is incredibly powerful, raw and moving, Ilene. I try to show some of the darkness in my writing nowadays, but I can’t help having rose tinted glasses.
    Sending much love ❤️

    1. You’re filled with what keeps us all alive – hope. I couldn’t imagine being here still without it. Going through radiation now and for seven more visits I think is what brought this out – it wasn’t what I’d ever thought I’d have to subject myself to even with the fifth line of poison coursing through me. I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. I dislike the rose-tinged month of October- I liked the orange and red and gold of the falling leaves bringing in the fall and signaling rebirth of nature far more. How melancholy it all is shrouded by Covid too.
      Love you!

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