Poetry from China

When Breastscreen staff told me that I had triple negative breast cancer my distress was compounded by circumstance. My only child, my beautiful twenty year old daughter, was on holidays in China. It would be a week  before she was home.

I agonised about whether or not to tell her.  My first instinct was to wait and let her enjoy her holiday. Then  a dear friend reminded me that Zoe and are are very close, and the chances of her going a whole week without picking up that something was wrong were slim. There was also the risk that she’d find out via Facebook or through some other means and would be very angry that I hadn’t told her. I decided to tell her. It was the hardest call I’ve ever had to make.

Yesterday Zoe told me she’d found a poem that she’d written after I’d rung her to say “I’ve got cancer.”

She’d forgotten about it and found it the other day when she was cleaning. She read it to me, and we both had a bit of a cry. I think it’s very beautiful, but it did make me so sorry to have put her through all of the distress that comes with this illness.

It was also a great opportunity to see how far we’ve come since diagnosis. Those first few weeks are fraught. Everything is so uncertain. You look at a pair of shoes and wonder if it’s worth buying them; will you live long enough to wear out the ones you own?

She’s given me permission to share it with everyone, so here it is:

The vibration travelling

In waves; through air over cables and the waves and mountains between us

The infinite void between us and

The deafening silence before

Three words

Three words to crumple me

Doubled over in heart-tearing pain

Clutching at nearby objects

In feeble attempt to grasp reality

Grasp familiarity

In the foreign yet too well understood meaning of those three words

Grasping for breath and for answers

Trying to find something to say

Nothing to counter the brevity of those three words

Only emptiness

In the space my mind seems to so readily fill with complex sentences

Only emptiness

In the vast infinity between us

And yet a rush of desperate remembering

Suddenly yields a child-like terror

At not, in this very moment, being held

By the person

Whose essence seems entwined with every fibre of my being

Blue eyes catch mine in unwelcome reflection

Your eyes, essentially

Semi-trailer to the chest for a second time in the stretched out pause – only seconds, infinite seconds

A shock that makes me see

Even over all that sea between us

That you, my perfect, beautiful mother

Are infinite

More than the death that’s a threat from the Big C

Don’t you see?

You are entwined in the lives of all you have touched with boundless wisdom, with kindness

More than genes, it seems

You are an electric pulse in otherwise unlit humanity – live

This is clarity

Three words to change everything

And nothing

But you are infinite.


It turns out that before Zoe had any idea I was going to get a call back from Breastscreen she dreamt I’d had a cancer scare. Just as well I didn’t try to keep it a secret.

From this end, looking back, things are a lot more optimistic than we expected. Having been told I had an uncommon and aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis I am now in a position where my oncologist seems ‘reasonably certain that we’re looking at a full pathological response’, in other words, I no longer have cancer. We’ll need to wait for surgery and a week of biopsy tests on the tissue they take out to be certain but all signs are good. Only two more rounds of chemotherapy to go and then a few weeks break, surgery and radiation once I’ve recovered from that.

A cure is possible.

Neither Zoe nor I knew that when she wrote that poem.


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