Cancer’s Real Toads: Using Poetry to Understand the Experience of Cancer


This past weekend, I had the immense good fortune to join with award-winning poet, gifted teacher, and five-time ovarian cancer patient Judy Rowe Michaels for a conversation at the American Cancer Society. I’ve taught Judy’s work in health humanities seminars and workshops around the country. The prevalent use of militaristic metaphors to describe patients’ experiences in cancer treatment (“she fought a valiant battle,” “he is a courageous survivor,” etc.), although empowering to some people, can feel very disturbing to others. Many of the objections have to do with the implication that those who are braver or more courageous survive, as though being a better warrior translates to better health outcomes. Others resist the metaphor because they object to militarism more broadly. But for me there is another concern: cancer is a disease of the self, resulting from the activity of the cells in one’s own body (unlike, say, malaria or Zika, which come through an infection). What are the implications of treating cancer like a foreign enemy, an invader, on a person’s sense of self? That’s not a question with a single, simple answer. So I’m especially interested in the dazzling array of metaphors Judy uses to describe her illness and those of her friends and family members.

I’ve posted an excerpt from the event. The camera work is very basic, but the insights are definitely more complex. The clip begins with the last part of Judy’s answer to my opening question, which was, “Your first book of poetry was published at around the same time as your first recurrence of cancer. What reflections can you share about the concurrence of these two major life events?” Click below to watch.

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