Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hard Times for Breast Cancer Survivors

I know there's a lot of dispute about the term "survivor" for anyone who's had cancer and is still alive. But when you read about two women, roughly your own age, who've died of breast cancer in the last week, it can be a bit tough; and you do feel like a survivor, with all the resultant complexities. Not guilt, exactly, but certainly a shiver that barely separates you and your own excellent prognosis from them and their much harder stories.

And when they are famous, there's a lot to read about them: pictures of them, their children, and reminders of their public achievements.

I think a lot of Australian women thrilled at Kerryn McCann's marathon victories, especially those with children who saw an elite athlete just powering on through with her inspirational running. She died last week at 41.

And yesterday, Dorothy Porter, a wonderful poet, also succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 54. I loved her work, and heard her read and speak a couple of times. Link to a beautiful photograph that I think is copyright-protected.

The only time I spent any different kind of time in her company was on the oak lawns in the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, where she had invited a small group of people to celebrate the life of Gwen Harwood, who had died, also of breast cancer, a few months before. We each read our favourite poem. I read "Dialogue", an early poem addressed to a stillborn child.

If an angel came with one wish
I might say, deliver that child
who died before birth, into life.
Let me see what she might have become.
He would bring her into a room
fair skinned —— the bones of her hands
would press on my shoulderblades
in our long embrace


[She asks what brought the ghost to her; and the child replies...]

— It is none of these, but a rhythm
the bones of my fingers —— dactylic
rhetoric smashed from your memory.
Forget me again

I had never heard Gwen read this in public until I was interviewing her at the Melbourne Writers' Festival in 1992, when I was writing my book on her (you can download a full-text pdf from the e-print repository). She had agreed to do it over lunch, but all the same, had to pause, half-way through, and collect herself.

Ahhh. These women. This disease. These deaths.

2 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

I thought of you yesterday when I heard about Dorothy and wondered how you were doing. For some reason not with Kerryn McCann though -- possibly because I was too preoccupied having my own little shiver in the soul for obvious reasons. But that is a hard, hard conjunction for you to be looking at, my dear. I prescribe very high quality alcohol. And don't forget that at this time of life these negotiations with hard truths make us literally, physically, fundamentally tired. The story about having to collect yourself to give your paper was quite disquieting -- I hope you are going to slow down a bit and formally give yourself a week or two off when you do no work at all. Hugs meantime, thus: {{{Stephanie}}}.

(It took me weeks to work out what those curly brackets mean!)

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