Variations on a Primitive Tumor

October, soon ending, is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I typically ignore it, which seems to be a bit wrong. At last week’s high school reunion, we spent some time remembering those who were no longer among us. One of those was a friend from high school who died from cancer two years ago. In case you don’t know it for yourself yet, it is possible to lose touch with people these days; not everyone is on social media. I regretted not knowing that George was ill. Regret is in its own column, of course; you already know that.

So, yes, I’ve had cancer. I’ve had other friends lose that battle. Others who survived but still fight the pain. Some still struggling. I will confess that I didn’t take my diagnosis to be hard. When a nurse last year said, “Oh, I see you had the bad kind,” I responded, “Oh. I didn’t know.” So this was not my dark- night-of-the soul moment. Surgery was nothing much, nor radiation, but chemo was no picnic. I appreciate the women I know who had chemo on Friday so they could be back teaching on Monday. Amazing, in a word.

The title of the poem below comes from my mother. She had lung cancer. When the doctor (whose credentials she asked for and got: Harvard Medical School, acceptable) told her she had a primitive tumor, she was a little offended that it was not…what? sophisticated? You had to know her, I guess, to appreciate that point of view. So the dedication is to some of the women I’ve known who have both battled and lost cancer.

For those of you who don’t like to think about cancer, let me remind you that it doesn’t care. Molly Ivins, an iconic Texas writer popular for her skewering of politicians, died of breast cancer at age 62. That seems so young now. Her father had killed himself after hearing a cancer diagnosis. She fought, and she encouraged others with “Get.The.Damn.Test.” I don’t curse, ever, at all, but I’m not sure it isn’t warranted here. Perhaps coincidentally, a member of our graduating class knew Molly Ivins and worked with her. Yes, get the test. Take care that you don’t have to know cancer. Or if you do, that they catch it early. I look at the place where my eyebrows should be every day. Lately, I’ve learned I have a slight bit of kidney disease, caused by the chemo. On we go.

As opposed to the last lines of the poem, I do know. It’s a way of helping others—to know—in the final analysis. A young friend just coming out of treatment asked recently, “How do you live with the thought that the cancer will recur?” I’m not too clever, so I responded, “You live with the thought that the cancer will recur.” Much more moving things can be said, and I hope you will read them if you need them. This is what I have. I do hope I don’t have more, later.


Cancer is dumb.

Cancer is so stupid.

It kills that which gives it life.

Cancer is not like the flu.

No, I have had the flu.

It jumps from person to person

So never dies.

Cancer does not jump.  Cancer stays.


My three friends know cancer now.

Rebecca had leukemia.

Rebecca was brave.

She fought cancer.

She fought very hard.

Then she said, “I cannot fight


Then Rebecca died.


Linsey had a tumor.

Radiation, the tight fire,

Made the tumor shrink.

But it did not kill all the cancer.

Linsey takes strong medicine.

She is very brave to swallow poison.

Her voice is dry and she clears her throat.

Her hands are too weak to write.

Linsey will fight.

Lindsey will live.


Kim had a lump.

She knew it was cancer.

The doctor took it off, out.

But the cancer came back.

Kim was strong and brave.

She took strong medicine.

She tried to let the marrow of her bones

Heal her if it could.

She stayed alone and waited.

Kim fought but she did not win.


I do not want cancer.

I do not know if I am brave.

I do not know if I am strong.

Linsey is fighting.

Kim tried hard.

Rebecca tried for a long time.

Rebecca is resting now.

And Kim.

I wonder if I would try.

I am smart.  I am very smart.

But I do not know if I am as smart

As cancer is so very dumb.

I do not want cancer.

I do not not not not want to know.


To L.T., B. O., and E. H.