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Greetings from CancerLand: A Few Words for the Graduates

Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

First, she arranges the tables to form a long rectangle in the center of the conference room. Then she places the orange upholstered chairs around the perimeter, three on each side, two at each end. Ten seats. That should be enough to hold the group, she thinks to herself.

Next, she takes a folder of oversized decorative paper out of her carrying case: pink pages printed with bunches of Victorian roses, white sheets with a pattern of pink ribbons and diamond shapes repeated, and some pink and white paper with the words LOVE and HOPE printed across the top. She carefully places the sheets of paper on the table, one at a time, end-to-end, right down the center. Stepping back, she admires her handiwork for a moment. Looking good, she thinks to herself.

Finally, she takes twenty photographs from her purse and begins to deal them like playing cards onto the table. One after another, the pictures of the group land face-up on the fancy background papers, until the middle of the table is filled with images of smiling ladies. Women ranging in age from their early thirties to mid-seventies. Women of every shape and size and lifestyle – married, single, divorced, widowed. Some working, some retired. New mothers, grandmothers and everything in between. All connected by a common disease: breast cancer.

In this small sample of ten breast cancer survivors, there’s stage zero to stage four disease. And as a group they have collectively experienced just about every breast cancer treatment in the book - from lumpectomy to bilateral mastectomy to reconstruction and multiple revisions, not to mention, radiation and assorted chemotherapy cocktails. What has bonded them over time is participating in a support group that focuses on the healing power of reading survivor poetry and memoir and then writing the breast cancer experience from their personal point of view.

Seven years, she sighs as she continues fussing with this instant tabletop scrapbook, making sure that the pictures lie straight with equal space between them. Her eyes slowly wander over the snapshots and memories from all those years fill her head.

Here are the ladies wearing matching purple tee shirts, arms linked together as they walk the Survivors’ Lap at Relay for Life. Another shot – this time the women are all in pink, performing their original poetry for an audience of survivors at a Living Beyond Breast Cancer networking meeting. In the next photo the women are enjoying a summertime backyard picnic. Here’s a good one: all of the ladies standing in a row in front of framed pieces of their writing on display at a Survivor’s Day Celebration in Philadelphia. Then there are photographs of birthday celebrations – with lots of presents, colorful balloons and sparkly princess crowns on display. They sure didn’t need much of an excuse to get a party going. Such good times…, she thinks to herself.

Maybe that’s the message for this final meeting of the group. A meeting that just happens to be scheduled during the month of June. (A month that’s all about graduations: old chapters ending, new chapters beginning.) We have had such good times. And these pictures say it better than words ever could, she thinks to herself.

But if there’s a need for some kind of a graduation speech tonight, it just might go something like this:

Tonight is our last formal meeting, ladies, but there’s no need for sadness or long faces. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We have a lot to smile about! This evening is a celebration of ten very special ladies and seven years of good times. As a group you have combined your healing energies and created a loving community, supporting one another through each and every crisis. And on the bumpy road to recovery, you have all crafted authentic, original, works of art - carefully choosing your words and stringing them together to craft amazing poems and pieces of memoir describing your experiences. But the best part is that you have shared your creativity with other breast cancer survivors coming up the path behind you. Tonight may not be a classic graduation ceremony - with Pomp and Circumstance and caps and gowns and diplomas - but we are truly moving forward. Something needs to be hollered loud and clear so that everyone can hear: Ladies, we have done such good, healing work together.

She checks her watch. Five minutes to seven. Enough time to do one final thing before the ladies show up at the door. She reaches into her bag and finds a container of small pink plastic gemstones. She sprinkles handfuls of them around the photographs on the table and turns off one bank of overhead lights in the conference room. From the doorway, in the low light, the tabletop display of photographs is now surrounded by a pale pink glow. It will be the first thing the ladies see when they arrive, moments from now. Perfect, she thinks to herself.