As a student I was fascinated by
the biology of cancer
how a rogue cell could mutate away from what it was
and lose the ability to die.
I was transfixed by microscope pictures: blooms of cells
stretched across the page, crimson jellyfish
with the ink blue hearts;
the sublime beauty of immortality.
That was before things unravelled,
when it was easy to see a line between people who were
and those who were
As an oncologist people pilgrimage to see me.
Carrying their tumours like old luggage
There are familiar stories of a bloodied tissue a lump
their body inexplicably melting away.
When they speak I see the swarm of blue and crimson
turning and growing inside of them.
Radiologists describe cancers innocuously
an apple core in the throat spiculations in the breast,
a coin in the lung,
the meaning always in the subtext of the last line:
the lesion is suspicious.
Our weapons against immortality are blunt:
knives, radiation and poisons.
My patients are brave even as we take away
pieces of their body.
I bring them to the cusp of unliving,
then stand on the sidelines hoping the cancer will die before they do.
I wonder how these people can bear to look at me.
Above my desk I have list of Chaplains,
These people come and sit with my patients providing things that science cannot
The Hasidic Rabbi
walks slowly down the ward in measured paces,
dressed in black a bowler’s hat,
his beard obscuring his face, long tendrils hanging beside ears
He looks as if he may have walked all the way from Jerusalem.
Those I am resigned to lose are resilient against the odds,
they fend off infections, regain flesh and colour, pack their belongings and return home.
Those whose lives I bargain for
seem only to go more quickly.
Last week I lost a woman my own age.
The cancer was in her pancreas, but by the time I saw her
its satellites were all through her.
Her limbs so swollen with ascites she was bound to bed.
She looked at me with disbelief
‘but I was out gardening a fortnight ago.’
I phoned the Chaplain told him there was someone for him to see,
even though my gardener was an atheist.
I waited for him to arrive wearing serenity like white robes,
wondered if I’d the courage to intersect at the nurses’ station;
to place my hands on his shoulders
and shake him with the violence of burnout,
so that through his tremulous vision he could see
it was me he’d come for.