Poems from the Radiation Experience
Poems from the Radiation Experience were inspired by the Radiation
Sonnets written by Jane Yolen (2003). The series of poems which follows
is my expression of the experience of radiation treatment and the
people who influenced me during the treatment course. I am grateful to
the Radiation Oncology Department of the Lancaster General Hospital for
their care and dedicate this work to them. At this time I am seeking
the guidance of the Cancer Genetics Program at the Hershey Medical
Center as I represent the third generation of women in my family to
have Breast Cancer.
Through the course of the poems the transformative nature of treatment
for cancer is evident. I begin with fear and then visit and revisit
themes of the treatment. I respond to events and the people I met while
in treatment through the 32 days of the experience of radiation. The
symbols of the chrysalis and the butterfly supports the work of losing
the fear and developing an attitude of healing - a softening around the
heart. I believe this is evident in the way the poems evolve. I hope
that the poems may support others in choosing to journal to support
Day 1: Radiation's Chrysalis
Chrysalis, protected by the
Wrapped in pink and bare breasted -
Expecting death and fearing photographs.
Letting go - not grasping.
Taking in the circle of people
Whose tumors draw them here.
Pink robes in a circle of comparing pain.
Breast hot, fluid grinding, struggling -
The burning has just begun.
As we begin, my soul is a ghost
of the Polaroid man.
Day 2: The Circle of Pink Robes
Empty pink circle
Who will be next?
Tired faces and burned breath.
Come through the Gamma wall -
A fortress where inner walls are melting.
I don't know me now.
How much further must I go?
The stranger inside touching the strangers outside -
The circle of pink robes.
And those who wear no robes are the most loved.
Their robes are hats, baseball caps -
And their thin skin touches me most of all.
Day 3: Mr. Murphy the Volunteer
Mr. Murphy is safe.
He has been through the deep pain of cancer.
He gets his exercise walking
Between the treatment rooms
And the lobby.
He knows each person-
Notices things and isn't afraid to bring them up.
He would have made a doctor.
I might not have been afraid of him.
I'd tell him the cough is getting worse.
I'd tell him I can't eat.
Day 4: Pumpkins Listen
Pumpkins listen as this cohort
Discusses the thin line between life and death.
The walk is long for Steven and
Lonely for the Vietnamese woman.
I join the endless radiation circle
Parading into the technical exactness of the setting up.
Every day a new technician
Every day women - my peace -until today -
I was supposed to be afraid
But there are always surprises.
This healer's hands work to take my fear away.
The Treatment done -
I walk past the pumpkin line up
Where Steven is doing a lifetime of reading.
Lifetimes mean something else here.
In four days the chrysalis is cracking.
Day 5: Ceilings
Climbing the rock face of the
radiation room ceiling with my fingernails
My carefully positioned hands clawing at this gate.
I see the faces of all who have now peered at my wracked-out breast.
And so it is Friday and I may say rest.
My arm may come down.
I may cover myself - says the voice from the loudspeaker.
My hand transparent to the sounds of the machines -
The grinding sounds and the
Sounds of three generations crying over spilled milk.
I may cover myself and go away now.
Just one of a hundred this day and
I go to cool myself in water where tears cannot be detected.
I will not give all of me again till
Day 6: Monday is Doctor Day
Like a DT soldier I lie on this
The shaking has returned - the tremors well from deep inside me
Like a cello string being played in my bones.
Emotional blinders - like sun in our eyes and
In the office the Polaroids are visited on my soul again.
The photos laid bare on the table in front of me.
We play our games about weight and try to give each other space.
I ask for salve for soul and nipples cracking under the radiation
The new machine seems to grind much longer now
But the office is much calmer - its working parts repaired.
I wonder what parts of me will still work when we are done?
Dr. Day is thankfully short.
Day 7: You Can Put Your Arm Down
You can put your arm down
Comes a voice from above.
It reminds me that there are those watching me
The voice has no face.
This sound like the loudspeaker in Shindler's List
Speaks to me in nakedness.
I feel the trembling begin again.
It wakes me in the night and
I hear the voice in my waking.
I can't go back to sleep anymore.
Day 8: Privacy Abandoned
There is a custom in this place
And I am getting used to it.
There is a rhythm in the circle of pink friends.
That welcomes the permissions.
There is a wall around most people
Not unlike the brick wall at the front
A Fortress wall - with one entrance.
Today I give myself permission
To abandon my privacy.
The doctors and the nurses -
Technicians and the pink circle - all have their voices.
Today I give myself permission to hear them all.
Day 9: Baby
Seeing into the future - and
watching my daughter's baby
Come to terms with nursing - the source of her life.
We speak of three generations of us who have
Sacrificed our breasts to
I can't reassure her - I understand.
I feel afraid to tell her I am meeting with the geneticist.
Afraid to tell her about the violence -
As my Mother was afraid to tell me too.
This path is sharp as glass.
Day 10: Conversation
The inner waiting room loses its
The conversations between us are about swelling and burns
There is conversation here about how to live in the shadow of death.
The conversation often centers on release -
We smile for each other as each of us is released
From looking oneself in the face this way.
Released from the violence of the machine
Released to heal ourselves -
Released to build on fears of these cells gone awry.
Released to hold our lovers
Released to hug our children
Released to never be the same.
Day 11: Water
Water, water, clear blue
And source of my strength.
I go to the water for cooling.
The distance seems shorter now
The tears spill less.
I can't feel the trembling
when I participate in so much motion.
On this day I go to the water twice
To soothe my soul.
The water holds me and guides me.
One mile of water every day
Water, a clear blue light.
Old man, I hug you in the hot tub.
The butterfly wings are wet and fragile
But they are unfolding.
Day 12: Baby
Two months now.
Holding you makes me drink my radiation gladly.
Holding your sleeping form on my chest
The sun warms us while a lullaby plays.
Bring your truth baby.
The fragile sturdy nature of life
And the thin ice of health we both skate.
Baby so sleepy.
You hold me as much as I hold you.
Rays of sun fall on us both.
I feel sweet comfort in your small hands and feet.
Day 13: Boldness
Today you noticed my boldness.
Maybe becoming naked every day makes it so.
I don't know.
Hugging the old man with Parkinson's
In the hot tub,
Telling the technicians
About the loudspeaker voice,
Telling the school how I feel about their unfair practice
Of putting huge special needs classes together.
Yes, boldness with respect for others.
This boldness comes with trembling though.
I wake in the night
Sore afraid, but I keep reaching out my hand to someone else.
Day 14: Courage
Courage is the seed of love.
David, you hold me tight and give me courage.
That spills over to a tide of courage
Rising and falling in a rhythm of waves breaking.
This courage comes of others,
As deep truths.
Life is open and responsible.
To heal - just hold out your hand.
Courage will follow.
Day 15: A Space for Gifts
Today the conversations in the
waiting room are a gift to me.
As you told me your fears
I felt my energy reach out to you and lift you up.
My hands and arms hold you tight.
Steven, John, Victoria, and now you -
The openness of your speaking about the truth
Of your reckoning with the oncologist.
You share your fears of leaving your wife of 56 years.
You honor my soul by your telling.
Polaroid man has left a space in me where you can fit.
A space for me to hold you.
I am blessed by your faith and your heart.
I am beginning to be grateful to the Polaroid man.
Day 16: Poetry
The voice of poetry is like a
voice of prayer.
Spiritual healing is a gift given through intention.
Healing hands and healing balance.
Read the poems and feel the voice
Of all who have told their stories.
The spiritual changes are
Prylo for raw skin.
The transformation begins with putting aside all of the fear
Letting the energy of fear provide itself for healing.
The butterfly is free.
Day 17: Next
After this intensity
What will be next?
After these days
And the radiation's grinding ends
Will the cells be dead?
After the routine
Will there be more?
85% sounded so good
But meeting the 15%
Gives me a different version of truth.
I think death sits on my shoulder now.
Day 18: Burning
Today I feel the burning more.
I feel my arm more.
I feel the fear more.
I have not been in water enough.
I have not been cool enough.
Water and fire are at arms length.
Reach outside and reach inside.
The balance is hard to find.
If I cannot heal -
Let me accept.
My soul is centered.
Day 19: Through Your Eyes
You are 19 and you insisted on
coming with me.
Your courage to come with me made me think again
About how I first felt
Walking into the Cancer Center.
Into the cancer culture.
I resisted defining myself this way.
I remember now.
I saw through your eyes
The sense of pity and sadness.
I saw through your courage
To come with me
Just how special you are.
You are a child of the world.
You bring fresh eyes to mine.
Thank you for your gift of time.
Day 20: Soreness
The soreness is deeper today.
If only the weekend can be salve
Then all will be well.
The water has cooled the burns.
The salves and creams and sprays all do their job
But the hotness is radiation from inside working its way out.
Thankfully there will be three days off this week.
Thanksgiving comes at a sweet time.
Day 21: The Radiation Oncology
Putting fears in a safe place -
on my shoulder just outside myself
I visualize them just like a
ball of cancer
Tentacles and all - and then
Fearlessly look around the waiting room to see if there is anyone else
Who might be suffering the same fear as me -
And who here does not?
The compassion rises in me and I see the feelings in each person.
Sitting as close as I can
I breathe in the fear I find here
And exhale a healing power with breath and words that follow.
I venture a question or a reflection.
The room opens up and I listen to stories.
Sometimes, when they hurt too much - I reach out my hand.
Sometimes, pink gown and all I just offer a hug.
Never mind the urine bag hanging from your leg,
The horrific skin scar on your chest,
The emotional wall you are making with your magazine.
Never mind my own radiation burns.
We are - all of us - made family of this crab
And we all hold each other and breath a bit better now in this waiting
It happens every day.
Day 22: Blood Day
Today I gave blood in more ways
The spiritual and emotional scar revealed.
I offered you my heart and soul and
You pointed to my contract.
The one I signed because I had no choice.
You told me - my time is up.
I forgive you.
I even forgive myself.
A hug between us - we both relax.
Day 23: Let the Burning Begin
Let the burning begin.
The promised blisters have arrived.
Now David's T-shirts are my attire.
I ask him to douse me with hydrogen peroxide.
The physical pain - easy for me
Easier than the emotional or spiritual pain.
Technicians, today you rush to offer me kindness.
At the edge of spiritual practice all day - you offer me
A cool patch and a plan for burning.
My tension cools.
Day 24: Reconsidering My Pool
Burns - you make me reconsider
my pool time
What it means to me.
I consider this with a stranger -
A hot tub fellow swimmer.
You listen as I tell you
That I am swimming so
I don't cry and that
It has given me a story to encourage my students.
That the swimming will not change the course of cancer
But it changes my story.
You listen so well that I tell you everything.
You never ask me to listen to you.
I know you are different.
I asked you, "What do you do?"
You tell me you are a
You give me permission to swim -
Just wash yourself off.
Caught where I should not go with radiation burns -
The cross you wear is you.
A healer again.
I am blessed by your kindness.
Day 25: Hope
My friend, your walk back to the
lobby was a trial.
You told me the Dr. has said there is no hope
And you'll be passed on to Hospice.
The cancer is in your blood now, you said.
Your wife and you both come to tell me.
Steps unreal, your eyes straight -
Your tears just under the surface.
I wish I could follow you home and hold you.
I know you told me that if Jesus calls you home you are ready -
But your wife of 56 years must also face this.
You are worried about her.
I can only say that I am sorry.
That your days ahead will be the most precious of all.
My turn comes for the Doctor.
I wonder - how can you give yourself to this message Dr.-
Over and over?
How do you support yourself?
How is this for you?
Day 26: The Diagnosis
Today I came to thank you.
Because of your assertive decision
To check more carefully
I get to avoid a mastectomy for now.
I could tell by your silence you felt touched.
You wouldn't let the imaging center just look at the problem breast
But insisted on a thorough look at both breasts.
Because of you -
I get another chance.
Day 27: Technicians
Technicians, my understanding of
your skill and compassion
Grows with time and my openness to you.
You know your work, you know your patients, and you know healing.
You seem to know all the steps we each need to overcome our fears.
You simulate and set up for the large radiation dose-almost the end for
Somehow, I know that when lives touch like this they never really
We move into the last week -
You stay to work through an endless circle of pink robes.
Your work continues and you transform another cohort through your
I believe that from here on
I act on your behalf in ways
I can't imagine or predict.
But with you in mind, my family extended now by knowing you and your
Your healing hands destined to offer care to many more.
I will never forget who you are or what you do.
Just know that what I do from here on will hold a reflection of
your care for me.
Day 28: Mullein
My burns are taking over my
The remedies suggested have no effect now.
The hydrogen peroxide makes the burns deeper.
The gel pads hold the heat in.
And a package of Mullein leaf extract comes in the mail.
I have nothing to lose and the soothing effect is a miracle.
I can get back to work.
I don't have to call my colleagues to divide my responsibilities.
I am going to be ok.
Day 29: Radiation Oncologist.
How do you go from person to person
Facing the fear of cancer?
Does your serious demeanor hide a flood of emotion?
The men and women who work with you seem to feel your support.
You count on them and their insight.
I hear you ask them.
You count on all of the staff to be dedicated.
There is no question here.
Today a woman is brought in on a stretcher - a mask covering her face.
The intensity in the waiting room rises.
My questions may have caused this woman to wait.
When I realize that -
I feel ashamed of taking your time.
This is a mountain in the endless circle.
An urgency and a prayer.
Day 30: Students
The end one day away, my
students and I have survived cancer 101 and student teaching.
Students, you have supported me,
Listened to me and held me through surgery
And waiting for results and decisions.
You have listened to my fears -
My crises about the Polaroids,
You have looked wide-eyed at radiation burns
And stories of those who have been here before me.
You never intended to take this version of student teaching.
I only hope that you can say it was
OK - that you learned.
I saw you grow and change as teachers
Just as I was being forced to transformation.
Through my crisis you supported me by diverting my energy.
You will be etched in my memory- this class of 2003.
I will never forget you.
You have been brave with me and for me.
I respect you.
I would want all of you to teach my children.
You are very special students.
Day 31: Promises
As I prepare to leave
I make my list of promises.
To my husband
To my family
And to my caregivers.
I worry most of all how the patients I met will be from here on.
I hope they will reach out to each other -
Not hide behind their magazines.
Support each other.
As I leave today and return to the waiting room
I see them all talking to each other.
Holding each other.
I go in peace.
Day 32: From a Student
I just wanted to thank you for your guidance and help over the past
A series of 32 Daily Poems from the Radiation Experience
Carol Welsh, Ph.D.
Carol is an education professor at Millersville University and offers a
Journaling for Healing class at the Lancaster General Hospital.
You may contact her at her
You have been a source of inspiration and an essential element in my
Between Governor's School and student teaching,
I feel extremely lucky to have worked with you.
I always knew if I had a problem I could come to you for
It was also amazing to watch you work through this semester and
continue your battle with cancer.
I hope if I am ever faced with a struggle of that magnitude
I will have half of the dignity and courage
I have seen in you.
I hope you will enjoy this journal and use it to document your healing
throughout the coming year.
Keep in touch and take care,
Your student, employee, friend,