Cancer Scripts

The therapist listens. Listens to all of it. Listens and nods in places. Murmurs the occasional uh-huh to keep me talking. With her encouragement, I slowly spill details from my cancer story. The current chapter just happens to be, Post-Surgery #1 and Pre-Round Two of Chemo."

I feel the therapist's gaze as I ramble on. Feel her kind grey eyes reading me. Then I sense her focus slowly drift away from my face, up, above my forehead, to stop at an invisible point right above my head. Self-consciously I reach for a handful of hair trailing down the nape of my neck to jerk the wig back into place.

Damn this wig. This long, dark brown synthetic wig named Jennifer. Named no doubt to distinguish her from wigs called Candy (curly brunette), Jasmine (blonde and straight) or Danielle (wavy red). But with wigs having names, I can sit here in therapy as a newbie cancer survivor and actually whine, "I hate Jennifer. She's itchy and uncomfortable. Plus, she makes me look like a female impersonator, don't you think?" Somehow, in this small room, tastefully decorated in rich dark wood paneling and flowery chintz slipcovers, I can openly share my worst here-and-now fear with a trained professional: my nightmare that one day at work, Jennifer will take a nose dive right off my head, leaving me standing speechless and humiliated, (not to mention totally bald), in front of an audience full of strangers.

Bottom line, I am trying therapy on for size. To see how it fits. There's no question I need some help. Cancer treatment is wreaking predictable havoc - from the inside out, from the outside in - on my body, my spirit, my life. What's most upsetting is that when I look in the mirror I can't find any "me" that even looks vaguely familiar.

Springsteen's sad song lyrics are starting to make frightening sense: I was unrecognizable to myself. Maybe cancer has actually changed me into some stranger named Jennifer. Maybe therapy will help me understand this new, disturbing sense of self. Maybe I am trying to put up a good front, playing the part of Super Cancer Patient, but in reality I am slowly losing it. Maybe, just maybe, arm wrestling with appearance demons is a smokescreen for the real life and death issues I am unwilling (or unable) to think about right now. Maybe I don't have a clue.

When our first fifty minute hour comes to an end, the therapist rises from her chair with tears welling up in her eyes and walks the few steps across the room, from her chair to mine, with her arms opened wide. She draws me into an embrace and hugs me uncomfortably close. Releasing me with a warm pat on the back, she says somberly, "It's not just your cancer. You are part of the community of women who live on this planet. We suffer as you suffer. Fight hard. Fight well. We fight side by side with you."

She sends me out the door with a clear and compelling mission: to go off and fight the Cancer Wars for the Good of Womankind. And maybe because that's such a tall order, such a major agenda item on anyone's "to-do" list, I never make another appointment to see her again. Either that, or I don't need to. After all, I have been given my marching orders for this particularly challenging mission: I am Warrior Woman and  cancer is the enemy I have to beat to a pulp. Looking back, almost six years after the fact, I know that the "cancer script" the therapist handed over that day in her office, played itself out, one scene after another, all the way through treatment.

Truth be told, I put so much energy into playing a role, "courageously fighting the good fight," that Sandy, my favorite oncology nurse, made a comment during one of my last chemo infusions that I will never forget. "Ease up on yourself a little bit, why don't you," she said, "you know, when this is all over, no medals will be given out."

She was so right.  When my treament finally ended, in fact there were no awards for bravery; there wasn't a  medal or ribbon or shiny gold star in sight.  But maybe it's just as well.  You see, because after cancer treatment - the toxic drugs, the repeat surgeries, the radiation ... I didn't have much of a chest left to pin them onto anyway.

copyright2004Alysa Cummings

Cancer Scripts originally appeared in a longer form at OncoLink, an on-line resource for cancer related information.

Alysa Cummings:
Following a cancer diagnosis in 1998, Alysa began keeping a journal on her laptop computer.  She made continuous entries during her two years of treatment - through six surgeries, 8 rounds of chemotherapy and 6 ½ weeks of radiation.

She wrote it all down:  her angry feelings along with lots of little anecdotes describing her experiences in a place she began to call CancerLand.  This journal grew and grew, to over 100 pages.  Finally, she printed it all out, punched holes in it and neatly filed it away in a three ring binder believing that it had served its healing purpose. 

But a year later Alysa began revisiting the journal.  Some of the entries slowly morphed into poems, others became vignettes.  Many became part of a series of online poetry projects published by Oncolink where Alysa was named Poet-in-Residence.

She has been sharing her insights on the value of writing as a healing force with a group of fellow cancer survivors who meet weekly at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mt. Holly, NJ.  In May 2004, The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation honored Alysa's volunteerism  with a Local Hero award.  She will earn her credential as a Certified Poetry Therapist in 2005.