The last in a three-part series by Rae Armantrout, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author of Versed, on overcoming cancer.
A few months ago, I contacted one of my doctors to tell him I was still alive and doing well. My motives were, I admit, not entirely pure. There was a childish part of me that wanted to say something like, “Ha, ha, you thought I’d be dead but here I am.” And I knew it was likely he would have seen some of the publicity about my receiving the Pulitzer because this had received attention in the local press. He responded immediately and in a most generous way, saying he had been following my career and was very happy for me.
He also sent me a scanned copy of an article published by a dying man of letters named Anatole Broyard in 1990. The article describes the subjective experience of terminal cancer brilliantly. Broyard says, “Inside every sick man there’s a poet trying to get out.” The ill person is having a new and strange experience, and he or she is having it alone. He wants to tell someone what it is like. Broyard, goes on to say, “I want a doctor with sensibility, I don’t see why a doctor shouldn’t read a little poetry as part of his training.”
My point is that this oncologist, whom I, in a snap judgment, had decided was emotionally withdrawn, had kept this article about the doctor-patient relationship with him since he read it in 1990. He was, in fact, clearly, a man of sensibility himself, someone whom I should have gotten to know better. In retrospect, I see that he was doing me the honor of being honest with me. He felt that many cancer patients spend their last months pursuing toxic but hopeless treatments – and I realize there is a lot of truth to this. It was, however, perhaps a bit unrealistic of him to expect me to adopt an attitude of stoical acceptance three weeks after my surgery when I had no evident disease.
There may come a time when the terminal cancer patient goes from hoping to recover to hoping that death, when it does come, won’t be terrible. Clearly, however, I was far from that place. In fact, five years later, I am still healthy. Of course, I might have remained well if I had chosen to do nothing as Dr. Millard suggested. Instead, I found an oncologist in private practice at another hospital, who was willing to administer the drugs an assay had recommended. I had a four-month course of Gemzar and Taxoterre. Whether the unconventional chemo I chose actually helped stave off recurrences, I will never know.
The only complaint I have about my treatment, though, is something I think of as a systemic failure. I have to wonder why it took at least three years for one of the three oncologists I saw over the course of my treatment to discover Dr. Gary Hammer, an oncologist who specializes in my cancer at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. My third oncologist learned about Dr. Hammer some three and a half years after my surgery. She wrote him for advice on my follow-up care. It seems to me that I should have been referred to him almost immediately. Why would one medical school be so unaware of the work being done elsewhere? A more senior endocrinologist would probably have been able to offer me such a referral, but, remember, the endocrinologist I saw (only for the first few months) was a resident.
About a year ago, Dr. Hammer happened to hear me on NPR. I was being interviewed about winning the Pulitzer Prize and reading some of the poems that came out of my experience with cancer. He emailed me and suggested I contact him. I called him at the number he sent and we had a very productive conversation. A few months later I visited Ann Arbor, where I presented a talk, and was able to visit his clinic.
Anyway, I know I’ve been very privileged and very lucky. And I know that my life was saved by doctors and nurses in the operating room and the ICU. And it was great good luck that Dr. Hammer heard me on the radio. Since then he has arranged for a tumor board to consider my case and they found my tumor to be less aggressive, more slow growing than adrenal-cortical cancers generally are. To me it feels as if at first I was impossibly unlucky to be struck by such an unusual cancer, and then impossibly lucky to have survived it and, in fact, thrived.
Now here’s the part that might be scary for you: I want to share some poems, published in Versed, that deal with this experience. “On Your Way” was the first poem I wrote after coming home from the hospital. It’s a prose poem. The imagery is taken from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The next poem, “Together” comes out of the experiences I’ve had while sitting in a doctor’s office and waiting to hear the results of a scan. These poems represent the ways I began to think about the unthinkable.
“On Your Way”
On your way to The Sea
of Reeds you will meet the
Soul Devouring Demon.
You’ve heard it all before
and you believe it. Why not?
Why would they lie? You
must wear the beetle amulet
to avoid being consumed.
But it’s also true that you
can’t really know until it’s
actually happening. So you
have a sort of knowledge
which, even if later confirmed
in each detail, is still
not real knowledge. He will
weigh your heart and,
if it’s too heavy, you’ll be
swallowed up. What is this
extra element that is mingled
in when you arrive at the
No I am always perched on a metal examination table.
Two people, a doctor and a nurse, come at intervals
to tell me whether I will live or die. They do this with
practiced solemnity. They're smug or snug in their
habits, their relative safety, of course, but that is to be
expected. And I wait expectantly, even eagerly, as if I
might be of some help. If the news is bad, I imagine,
they will direct our attention to an area of concern. For
a moment, we will lean together toward that place.
Thanks for listening.