Battling Cancer with Poetry
E. C. Chang
In 2008, my life took an unexpected turn. Suddenly I found myself having to face a life-and-death situation: I was diagnosed with colon cancer. The news came to me more as puzzlement than a shock. I walked almost daily and had practiced healthy living for a long time. Yet, the fact remained that the cancer was real and aggressive enough to threaten my very existence.
For the next ten months, I had to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. Naturally I had to muster all my strength fighting against this deadly disease.
To get my feelings out, I had written more than thirty poems about my battle with cancer just before and after the surgery. However, I was unable, both physically and mentally, to write anything during the last six months of chemotherapy. My desire to write was also thwarted by my inability to walk outdoors regularly. (A great majority of my poems (in Chinese) were conceptualized and mentally composed during daily walks in my neighborhood). Although I didn’t write a single poem in six months, I found it therapeutic to read my own poems, especially those that reflected my feelings and attitudes toward life in general and cancer in particular.
Now, four years later, I can say that I am in good health. If by chance you have a friend who is facing this deadly disease, please encourage him or her to read some of my poems or my English translations. As a cancer survivor, I know most cancer patients are eager to find out the coping strategies used by other sufferers.
The Mind of a Cancer Survivor
As a cancer survivor, I am blessed to
Have extended my life to five full years.
Strong winds and rains will no longer
Burden me with worries and fears.
My damaged body does keep me from
Reaching the top of a high mountain.
But my mind can still wander around
Like a sea gull flying over the ocean.
Accepting fate and emptying mundane desires
Lessen the impact of disastrous events.
With forgiveness and tolerance,
I have now fewer grudges and complaints.
When the time comes for me to vanish
With the clouds and cranes,
Do not shed your tears, my dear,
For I have no regret but gratitude to proclaim.
Facing the threat of cancer,
don’t give up in despair.
To fight for your life, you need laughter,
Pain can be reduced by accepting the fact
and following the flow.
By blaming heaven and earth, despondence
can increase even more so.
Depressed feelings can help evil cells to spread.
An attitude of acceptance can diminish
the impact of stress.
The eventuality of life and death
is not up to us to decide.
But we can walk in stride
out of the terrace of ice.
The Evening Rain
The last few clouds were dispelled
by the rain at dusk.
The wind remained cold
and the ground was wet.
The crows kept cawing, but spring
could not be brought back.
Swallows and swan geese are still not there.
Fallen leaves will always return to their roots.
I can surely understand this universal truth.
I should learn from the Buddhist monk
that whenever he wears his cassock,
he must daily read the Sutras.
Even if I reach the dead end,
I shall face it head on until I am through.
Searching for Beautiful Dreams
The wind hurries; the sun
is on its way to set.
Leaning on a high tower,
I look deep and far.
A lone sailboat floats
down on the water.
A dream unfulfilled often incites regret.
The thought of not visiting those famous
mountains makes me sad.
Can my footprints still be left
on Penglai’s* enchanted hill?.
Will I still have time to set foot in the
oasis of a great desert?
There is too little time for so many desires.
Shouldn’t I just lower my expectations
and calm my mind?
*Penglai is a Chinese fairyland.
Between Life and Death
A lifetime of predestined relationships
will vanish like smoke.
When a boat is overturned by billows,
dreams and consciousness
can be abruptly interrupted.
A torrential rain can come right after
a bolt from the blue.
The elderly are the frequent targets
of invasive viruses.
Deep affection gives rise to feelings
of joy in reunion and sorrow in parting.
Fate plays a role in whether we are fortunate or
less fortunate, rich or poor.
When my final day has come, no longer
will I be able to feel sad or happy.
I will be content to permanently rest
on a cloudy mountain, surrounded by loess.
Who doesn’t have regrets?
Which piece of jade stone doesn’t
have some defects?
Relatives and friends might have already parted even if we could break a century mark.
What was once a magnificent building
now is left with nothing but ruins.
Once a soaring ambition it has now
become a silk thread, drifting and broken.
A sumptuous repast can be bad
for the stomach and intestines.
A fair lady, whose beauty is compared to
a flower and the moon, may show
a lack of grace and elegance.
One who is at ease in his mind
can be happy even in poverty.
By not demanding perfection, one will be
less likely to feel sad and guilty.
The fading clouds are chased
by the torrential rain.
The fallen flowers are swept
by the violent wind.
The sky and earth change suddenly.
The road collapses momentarily.
Cancer cells invade my abdomen and intestines.
My body and mind are held in spiritual shackles.
If I can be free from rancor at heart,
I will see the bright side even at dark.
The Road Ahead
The road ahead is very vague.
Which direction shall I take?
I cannot be certain if I will live.
Whether the outcome turns out to be
good or bad is beyond me.
Who else but myself can
change my own fate?
I must not let cancer have its way.
When there is love to be shared,
I can face adversity without fear.
The presence of trivial things in life
can be quite frequent.
There must be causes for a disease
occurring to an aging person.
My mind is at ease, and my life is carefree.
Living happily, any unpleasant feeling
can find a way of release.
I enjoy walking and sightseeing.
I eat vegetables and practice healthy living.
I must now face and accept this
Six months of chemotherapy can take a
physical and mental toll on me.
*It turned out that I had a family history of this type of cancer, of which I became aware only months after surgery.
Turbulence suddenly arises in the quiet sea.
Clouds have vanished without a trace.
A violent storm howls wildly from all sides.
The power of destruction is shown
in front of my own eyes.
The grasses still stand
The green pines remain
strong without falling.
On a clear day, I will pick up all broken
pieces in the garden.
I will provide support for the branches
that are weak and fallen.
Let the flowers grow even more beautifully.
Let the colors shine even more resplendently.
When the disease is so rampant,
how can the mind be calm?
In times of ill luck, the days
seem much longer.
I wish to hide the worries behind
the corner of my eaves.
But the torrential rain has moistened
the wall to the east.
In the human world, disasters
will never stop striking.
The steepness of a road is
not always subject to measuring.
All I can do is to be confident and composed.
To find enjoyment in adversity
will help heal the wound.
(Tune: The Immortal at the Sea)
Time never stops running.
Seasons will never change their order.
Hundreds of birds are back to greet spring.
Upon the new leaves and branches
the morning sun shines.
The gentle breeze strengthens
my will to fight.
The fresh air keeps my spirit high.
The blooming and falling of flowers
is the universal truth.
I now must cope with this deadly disease
with all my tools.
Surgical procedure must be done to stop
cancer cells from spreading.
My mind is equipped to adapt.
I shall not knit my brows to face the fact.
Surgical Operation under Anesthesia
(Tune: The Immortal at the Sea)
I could not be certain
there wouldn’t be any complications.
As I was under general anesthesia,
my consciousness had left me.
I entered a state of emptiness,
quietness, and no visibility.
Half a day felt like
just one second.
I could not feel or sense a thing
during the operation.
Surgery must be done
to remove a tumor in my colon.
Suddenly a human voice was heard
as I awoke.
I saw the light in the room and the
smiling face of my old companion.
The Big Earthquake in Sichuan While I was lying on the sickbed
I was lying on the sickbed
feeling pain over my body everywhere.
I needed time to recuperate after surgery.
I saw on TV the earthquake
pictures from Wenchuan.
My newly reconnected colon was shaken
by mountains collapsing in Sichuan.
Numerous people were buried in
rubble in a matter of a few seconds.
Schools suddenly became the
graveyards for their students.
Who could foresee such tragedies
and disasters in life?
Shouldn’t I appreciate the fact that I can still smell the fragrance of spring flowers?
With humidity back to normal,
I feel refreshed in the grove.
The sky seems higher,
and the colors look brighter.
The treatment approach appears to be working.
Cancer cells seem to have stopped spreading.
An aging body itself invites bacteria and viruses.
Diseases tend to avoid entering the young bodies.
Who decides fairness in misfortune?
It may not have a cause and reason.
In late March, the branches
are full of new buds.
The swallows return;
the yellow daffodils dazzle.
Warm breezes start to drive
away the desolate scene.
The cancer-fighting medicine
seems to have kept my body clean.
I feel fine now to resume my daily walking.
Trees will be vibrant again.
I can continue to dream.
A year of therapy has made me both
physically and mentally tired.
I didn’t know then if I could survive.
Facing Life’s Challenges
Life is like a dream.
Gone are youthful years of hope and dreams.
Mists are illusory, so are wealth, high
position, and fame.
Bone and heart transplantation can
hardly slow the process of aging.
A calamity can still find its way despite
our best efforts to prevent it from occurring.
Forbearance and persistence are needed
to pass through the dangerous path.
In adversity, letting nature take its course
may be our best bet.
We should free ourselves from fixation,
let our feelings and ideas fly.
Having weathered the storm,
we again will see the blue sky.