In the Cancer Room

Feature by Autumn Stephens


Some like it hot. I like it hot, in every bouquet a bee or a red-tipped thorn. A gift and a curse.

Like me, these expectant Saturday morning faces have survived (so far) the scourge. Like me, they have the human impulse to make things. Is more necessary?

The hospital says no. The hospital says yes. Five patients sign up for my “Cancer in Other Words” writing workshop. Ten. More.

"Simple Green" © Sophia AinsliIn fact, the room—the cancer room—contains multitudes. Some here to proclaim their gratitude for life’s pleasures, others, their grief at letting go.

One day—maybe the first day—someone cries.

To hug or not to hug?

My survival skill: arranging words, bouquets of words, to fill the empty vase. But my velvety ideals do not apply in a fluorescent conference room where doctors PowerPoint about disease vectors and the Tumor Board meets on Tuesdays. It’s stark in here, stripped down. And functional, like those shrinks who speak only to mirror your own words. Zen for the crisis. Later, an orderly will hose away the debris.

Here, sentimentality is okay, and excess, and the maudlin. Here, roses are not more worthy than daisies. Here, I play Machiavelli in reverse, the means justifying the end.

Purging is good, I have come to believe, though cannot quite bring myself to say. Better: reconstructing a story of loss and (sometimes) redemption. “I felt then”; “I feel now.” Beginning, middle, end. To make sense out of the incomprehensible—that is the only magic in the cancer room. To play God in a one-dimensional universe.

And so we—my “students” and I—parse survivor: cancer and concentration camp, grit and guilt, an armband cliché that doesn’t apply to anyone real. Every so often, I pluck a dead phrase from a third paragraph and deposit it in the sixth, where it shines like something living. The difference between “good” and “good for you” evaporates like tears in the crucible.

Remix, slant, shade, rail, lie, and then sculpt the lie until it’s true, whatever true is. Make up a happy ending.

Painting of a Clorox bottle by Sophia AinslieOnce I wanted to be a psychiatrist, to adopt war babies, to tithe. I have the urge to assuage pain. And, of course, to write. But here in this room, this hot and florid climate—this Tropic of Cancer—am I actually doing anything at all? Someone must sit in the tall chair, but there are mornings when I notice how much I resemble an inflatable doll.

Scratch that, you with your gray hair and remaining breast. You are an inflatable cow, then, dispensing the milk of human kindness from your single udder.

What is the word I’m looking for? Compatriot? Hothead? Florist?

Love is Not Enough. I never get past the title. I’m guilty of anything I could be guilty of. Arrogance. Impatience. Lack of precision. Poor crowd control. I have reactions, itches, lumps and bumps surfacing on the skin of my smooth intentions. I gut it out. My face is carved from shards of Mt. Rushmore: absurd, impassive, created.

Who hires a gun without bullets? There are only posies in my bandolier.

Lie down. Go limp. Don’t resist.

I try not to be too quick to pass the Kleenex. “Stuff it” is the wrong message.

One Saturday, someone doesn’t show up. Eventually the husband calls me, or I call him, or I discover the obituary over morning coffee.

Not every narrative ends in Oncology.

Not every narrative ends.

Every narrative ends.

Is this, am I, about writing or about death?

Rituals must be developed to encompass both.

Sometimes, I light candles to rekindle the flame. Or to burn the evidence. When a friend who’s never had cancer finds a matchbook in my purse, I let him think that I’ve taken up smoking again. Or worse. That’s what I deal in: worse, worst, and, yes, better.

I will never understand people who put down their pens before I call time.


Editor's Note: Don't miss the selections by participants in Autumn Stephens's workshop, "Cancer in Other Words":

Another essay by a former workshop member—"Why I Can't Stop Writing" by Wichita Sims—appears as a TW "Why I Write."


Art Information

  • “Clorox 2″ and “Simple Green” © Sophia Ainsli; used with permission


Autumn StephensSince 2005, Autumn Stephens has conducted expressive writing workshops for cancer patients and survivors at Alta Bates Summit Hospital in Oakland, California. She also teaches private writing classes and co-edits The East Bay Monthly magazine. Stephens is a trained Amherst Artists and Writers workshop facilitator.

She's the author of the "Wild Women" series of women's history and humor, and the editor of two anthologies of personal essays: Roar Softly and Carry a Great Lipstick (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2004) and The Secret Lives of Lawfully Wed Wives (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2006).


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