Surviving Breast Cancer: More Reading, Listening and Sharing

Breast cancer re-aligns your priorities. The importance of family, friends and time to be with them and do things you enjoy become paramount.

I was glad of the opportunity to re-read Bill Bryson’s “Made in America” The book is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The text is an entertaining compendium of possible and less possible word origins. Does “okay” come from Martin Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook? Or from the fact that Andrew Jackson was reported to write “oll korrect”? Or is it from the Greek ollakalla(all good)? Bryson offers a cogent discussion of sexism in the language, and there’s a lot of orthography, etymology, and toponymy. But this isn’t just a book about language. It’s also a bestiary of American pop culture, many of whose stereotypes Bryson debunks (a back-formation from Buncombe County, N.C., of course): Ellis Island, in its original splendor, wasn’t half bad; the Puritans enjoyed a good time just like the rest of us; and Ray Kroc hadn’t the inventiveness of the Brothers MacDonald, after all. Bryson tells us a lot we surely never thought about. There’s the cost of sending a letter by Postal Express and the reason for the bump on the fuselage of the Boeing 747. “Debugging” of computers began, we are told, on the day 50 years ago when a moth entered a Navy computer. There are, however, some facts that aren’t facts. Bryson places the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad among the group of Americans whose names were changed from awkward foreignness. And, surprisingly for a lexicographer, he indulges in the popular confusion of the 18th-century “long s” and the modern “f.” This offering won’t replace the popular works by Flexner, much less the majestic Mencken, but the style is engaging and the narrative diverting. An index is appended, but there is no useful list of words and phrases.

If, as Winston Churchill has it, England and America are two countries divided by a common language, here’s some disarming help sent by a Yank from the other side of the pond.

Gerry McGrath’s first collection of poetry is published in his book “A to B”. It is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/. He read from this when he came to visit a meeting of wkwriters. 

As well as being a highly visually stimulating poet, Gerry McGrath is also a poet concerned with humanity, with nature, with love and loss and how the prosaic and the poetic interact in day to day life.  The use of unconventional metaphors and similes gave many pleasant surprises as I saw things expressed in a way in which made perfect and beautiful sense however strange. Gerry McGrath describes ‘Untamed Lightning, Knees like Emaciated skulls, the sky…clean-shaven, Drowsy sail-cloth of your skin, Gossamer rain, Zany Butterflies, Pastry Roofs and Nicotine Grass.’ These are just a few examples of the arresting imagery which runs through this poetry collection. Some of the poems are as delicate as the ‘gossamer rain’ described by McGrath in the poem Sycamores. His poem Elegy appears in full here: https://survivingbreastcancernow.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/time-to-recover-watching-reading-listening-sharing/

I liked the later poems in this collection more than the earlier ones, although I do not know whether this was because they carried more depth of feeling or because by the time I reached them (I was more accustomed to and in tune with the poet’s tone of voice. The poems Secrets and Gift, which explore the art of writing poetry, struck me as particularly interesting as the creative process is highly individual to all writers and it is always interesting to be given a glimpse at how a poet writes. In Secrets he refers to a poet beginning with nothing and holding it ‘until it bleeds a secret’ a metaphor I found at once eerie and beautiful. In the poem Gift he refers to the way in which poets have the gift to observe ‘tiny immensities’, a gift which Gerry McGrath certainly has.

I think that ‘Tiny Immensities’ is such a beautiful and truthful phrase that it would make a good name for this collection of poetry, better than the current title A to B, which I found slightly off-putting. I understand that the collection was called A to B as it represents a journey, yet I feel that this title does not do the work as a whole any justice. The poem A to B from which I guess the title was taken, is my least favourite poem in the entire collection. In the poem McGrath tells us about butterflies, red-backed beetles and a dead marten but ends with ‘But let me tell you about the butterflies.’ While I realise that this premature ending was intentional I didn’t like it and felt let down that the poem did not go on to tell us about the butterflies as it seemingly promised to do. It only occurred to me later that this might refer to the other poems in the collection, some of which are as vulnerable and glorious as butterflies.

Some of the poems, particularly in the latter third of the book, were not so much poems, but snapshots of incidents, told in prose as precise as poetry. This was most apparent in the poems Busy, Currency, A Milky Sunlight, Two Friends, Mint Tea, Blue Light and Basics. I liked these almost poems best of all for the simplicity and honesty with which they were laid out and the way in which they all told an entire story in a snap shot. The scarcity of the language meant that by using fewer words McGrath was actually able to say more by imbuing his words with a deeper sense of meaning. The poem busy portrays someone cutting the poets hair while hearing about her Grandmother’s worsening condition. The combination of the prosaic ‘hair-clippings went flying out’ with the tragic ‘age, infirmity, depression, were all getting the better of her, pulling her down’ creates a beautiful sense of pathos, which runs on through the poems in this collection.

Every day is precious. Sometimes, in this blog, I may sound ungrateful. I am not. I know how lucky I am that my disease was found and treated early. I just do not like some of the results of my treatment. Still, it has made me slow down and given me time to spend time with those I love. Reading new books and some old favourites, sharing these with my family and friends and listening to all their views.

Valerie Penny

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A Pleasant Interlude Before Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

There is a time of year, it is usually around the second half of May when school children and students are studying for exams. They spend hours and days inside and in the libraries, so what happens? The sun comes out!  

This year was no different. During that sunny weather at the end of May, before the chemotherapy for my breast cancer began. My husband and I arranged for my mother to visit with us for a few days holiday, before I suffered hairloss and other side effects of the treatment. A mother should not have to witness that, if it can be avoided. During that week I did have to meet with my psychologist for my usual two-weekly therapy session.

I was able to air my feeling of resentment that I have never smoked, do not drink excessively and do take exercise. Nevertheless, cancer was the card I had drawn.  One day was interrupted when I had to go back to the hospital, this time for an initial set of blood readings to be taken before my chemotherapy sessions start. The hospital even did a pregnancy test! As if my long suffering husband did not have enough to worry about! I also had to go to the hospital for a cancer clinic visit with the oncologist and collect medications that I would need to take before chemotherapy began at the beginning of June.

We went to lunch with Mum and she had time to visit her friend who lives in the South of the county. Sometimes it was warm enough, just to sit in the sunshine in the garden and relax.

I was glad my mother was able to visit before the chemotherapy started and to see me still looking and acting like me. I had felt able to do plenty of home cooking and baking so we were able to ensure that many of her favourite recipes were served during her stay.  My mother had been treated for bowel cancer about four years ago and is presently cancer free.

She dealt with her ailments with dignity and an uncomplaining grace, even when the hospital infected her wound with MRSA. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  Staphylococcus aureus is a species of bacterium commonly found on the skin and/or in the noses of healthy people. Although it is usually harmless at these sites, it may occasionally get into the body (eg through breaks in the skin such as abrasions, cuts, wounds, surgical incisions or indwelling catheters) and cause infections.

Patients may be colonised with MRSA when they leave hospital, and there has long been concern that MRSA might spread from hospitals into the community.  It was certainly true with my mother. Her condition was complicated by the fact she is allergic to penicillin.

I try to emulate her dignity and calm, but fall far short of the mark, I fear.  During my Mother’s visit the wkwriters had a visit from Gerry McGrath who read some of his poetry to us and focused on Blank Verse. One of Gerry’s anthologies of poetry is reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/ My mother was able to join us for that meeting. I also re-read Made in America by Bill Bryson which I have reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The visit was a pleasant interlude and allowed me to divert my thoughts from cancer.

Valerie Penny

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