As I’m writing this introduction, I’m also waiting to hear the results of my niece Malia’s one-year scans. They will tell us whether or not the stage IV neuroblastoma that she spent half of her life fighting has stayed away from her neural crest cells. Since Malia was declared NED (No Evidence of Disease) last summer right before her fourth birthday, she has had to get a plethora of scans in three-month increments to make sure the aggressively fast-growing cancer hasn’t returned. The truth is, often neuroblastoma does return, and when it does, a child’s five-year survival rate drops from 40% to 0% — there is no known cure for relapsed neuroblastoma. So every three months our heart rates spike and we hold our breath during the week that passes between Malia’s scans and their results.
This is just one very small, concrete example of how cancer affects and continues to affect someone and his/her family long after the initial diagnosis. Besides the tangible aftermath of cancer, like hearing loss, speech impediments, rotted teeth, and secondary cancers due to treatment alone, there is a whole world of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that is tough to treat, as people have to figure out a way to cope with the trauma while they continue to actively experience it on a day-to-day basis. How could we explain to my then three-year-old niece that she wasn’t in danger while at the same time holding her down so doctors could pump her with poison and jab her with needles every hour? It’s hard enough for an adult to reconcile the sentiment with the actions, let alone a child.
I believe one of the many strengths of Karin Miller’s The Cancer Poetry Project anthology is that it offers cancer patients and their families — who are no strangers to the sometimes debilitating isolation of a darkened hospital room — the chance to read through a book that is incredibly raw and honest on every page, and not feel so alone. In this new volume of poems you’ll find yourself laughing, crying, and most of all, connecting with cancer patients, practitioners, family members, and loved ones as they tell their unique and inspiring stories through verse. I am honored to have a poem about my niece in such amazing company.
Amy Marengo: Congratulations on the second volume of your award-winning anthology The Cancer Poetry Project! What was it about editing the first volume that made you decide to do it again?
Karin Miller: Creating the first volume was a labor of love for me after my husband’s successful cancer treatment. Through the years, I would always hear from readers about how important the poetry was to them. Often readers were inspired to write poetry for the first time, and many poets would regularly send me their poems. That was happening so often I decided it was definitely time to publish another volume.
AM: Many poets’ biographies in your anthology touch on how writing about illness is therapeutic. How has writing about your husband’s cancer diagnosis helped you cope in the past? Does editing The Cancer Poetry Project 1 and 2 continue to be therapeutic?
KM: When Thom was diagnosed with cancer, I was four months pregnant with our first child. It felt like we were riding a roller coaster — excitement about becoming parents and terror that Thom wouldn’t be there to watch our child grow up. Writing and reading poetry felt like the best ways to make sense of my disparate feelings — it still does.
We’re fortunate: Thom’s been a survivor for 15 years, but he lost his dad to cancer and I lost a grandmother to cancer. Just this summer, my uncle passed away from sarcoma. Too many friends and relatives are affected. The cancer poems in The Cancer Poetry Project inspire and touch me every time I read them — which is often.
AM: What are your hopes for the new book?
KM: Even before the first volume, I dreamed of having the book available in cancer clinics and hospitals across the country. I remember trying to read old magazines in our clinic lobby and none of them resonated. Especially on really tough days, how can you care about losing 10 pounds or building a deck or the latest political scandal when a loved one is fighting for life? Quite a few readers have bought the book in memory of or in honor of a loved one and then donated the book to a favorite clinic or hospital. That’s my hope: that people will discover the power of cancer poetry right where they or their loved ones are receiving treatment.
AM: Are you able to find time for your own writing while working on such a large project?
KM: I really had to set my own poetry aside while selecting poems and editing The Cancer Poetry Project 2. But that’s fine. Creating and editing the book, this time and last, has meant the world to me. Now that the book is out, I’m hoping to find a bit more time for my own writing.
AM: What are some of the touching stories people have shared with you after reading your anthology?
KM: I feel so honored when readers send me notes or emails about how the poems have affected them. Recently, a mom wrote to say that she never truly understood her teenage son’s experience with cancer until she began reading patient poems in The Cancer Poetry Project. Not only that, but she has started writing her own cancer poetry. Her note brought me to tears.
AM: Do you think there will be a The Cancer Poetry Project 3 in the future?
KM: No doubt — I’ve already heard from poets wondering when the deadline is for the next volume!