Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer

June 1, 2022

Poet Laureate Joy Harjo describes poems as “openings in darkness,” which “hear what’s beneath” sensory experience. After my early-stage breast cancer diagnosis, I published Repaired (Finishing Line Press, 2016), a chapbook of poems that I wrote in order to make sense of my lived experience. 

In this poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer,” I adopted the numbered container of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” to hold thirteen different perspectives or ways to look at metastatic breast cancer. In my poem, I use metaphors–A is B or in this case, metastatic breast cancer is–to reveal what metastatic breast cancer looks like to other cells, family, friends, others with MBC, even an oncologist.

Seeing MBC from these perspectives and listening to what MBC said to me, I found new truths about my diagnosis. I am deeply grateful to Wallace Stevens for his original poem and to LBBC for giving me the opportunity to publish my poem. 

I encourage you to read the poem, then read my narrative explanation of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer.” Perhaps, then, you will go back and reread the poem, finding new meaning.

I also encourage you to share your metaphor about your breast cancer experience, trusting that it will hold your truth.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer 

I.     An occupied country, 

       borders ragged after war. 

II.    A patched and painted ceiling 

       repair, starting to leak again, 


III.   A sealed but never sent 

       love letter. 

IV.    A teenager’s messy bedroom 

       floor, covered with candy wrappers, 

       dirty t-shirts, paint brushes, 

       and half-read books. 

V.     An avenue of unfixed potholes. 

       Shambles of echoes. 

VI.   Two open 

       cupped hands. 

       To be filled. 

VII.  Rough, calloused fingers 

       rubbing a child’s small smooth 


VII.  A white square Post-It Note 

  folded into an origami heart. 

IX.   An empty hammock, 

       waiting for a breeze. 

X.    A Spot-the-Difference game

       with only 19 of 25 clues found. 

XI.   A perfectly fitting, beautiful black and white 

       taffeta dress with deep side pockets

XII.  A mourning dove’s sad song

       sounding its goodbye– 

       or is it hello?— 

       through its skin. 

XIII. 5:00 am: bird song scuttle 

       outside a bedroom window. 

       5:33 am: silence, gratitude, dawn.  


Read the narrative of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer” here.

Photo credit: John Flak @jflakphoto


Jenny Burkholder is a writer, teacher, and breast cancer advocate. Diagnosed with  ER/PR +, HER2 - early-stage breast cancer in 2012, she was diagnosed with ER/PR +/HER2+ metastatic breast cancer at the end of 2019. A longtime supporter of Living Beyond Breast Cancer, she is currently a Helpline Volunteer and a Hear My Voice: Metastatic Breast Cancer Advocate. As an homage to her HER2+ overexpression, she created, which highlights her poetry and creative nonfiction, and, which highlights her story and other stories of MBC.


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