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Writing poetry to process breast cancer

In celebration of National Poetry Month, LBBC board member Amy Reichbach shares how writing poetry heals her. 

Amy sits on a rock by the sea

I wrote as a teenager, in college and graduate school, and through my first career as a high school English teacher in North Philadelphia. Then I moved to Boston, became a public interest lawyer, got married, became a parent – and during a six-month period in 2012-2013, my marriage ended, and I was diagnosed with stage IIB, grade 3, triple-positive breast cancer. I worked full-time and parented my then-four-year-old through most of treatment, and even though I was at Dana Farber, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend support groups or take advantage of the resources around me. Any writing I did was for work.

A few years later, in 2015, I found Writing the Journey, a Living Beyond Breast Cancer program offered online for the first time that year. We read pieces by Anya Krogovoy Silver, Alicia Ostriker, Sharon Bray, and facilitator Alysa Cummings, among others. And we wrote. Each week, poems poured out of me, describing the shock and pain and loss of diagnosis and treatment. I started sharing with people in my life, and my poetry touched them. I participated in an online writing group with the Cactus Cancer Society a few years later, writing alongside other cancer patients, survivors, and thrivers, and sharing our stories. With the encouragement of an in-person workshop instructor at Grub Street in Boston, I began submitting my poems for publication, and in 2019, I was fortunate to be selected for a juried poetry workshop with writer Marge Piercy. People wanted to read my words.

A divorced Jewish lesbian mother now 10 years out from my breast cancer diagnosis, I write poems about family, sexuality, illness, and survival. I am still processing everything that happened to me, and to people for whom I care deeply. Poetry allows me to express my anger, my grief, my gratitude in a way that I could not when I was in the midst of treatment, when I was too scared to put these feelings into words – scared it would make cancer more real and thus more powerful, scared I would drive people away by talking about it. Now, poetry allows others to connect with my words, my stories, and my emotions. Writing heals me, and in the process, I hope it provides others with comfort and a sense that they are not alone.


Sliced Open I

Spooned it off and away,
nipple and all this time,
last time the odds said
the articles said
the surgeon said
the breast so big anyway
we could go in again
and no one would know.

day of surgery mammogram
when they found more
decided to try anyway
with one site, maybe two
cut away those cells, layer upon layer
learn how many more
lay in wait.

The call the next week:
two nodes, the spread contained
but the margins unclean
those cells that escaped
meant losing the breast
I’d held her to
for more than two years.

Such a hard start
we fought, my daughter and I
I believed mothering
meant feeding by breast,
only by breast
and mine certainly should work
given their ample size
passing an early test of motherhood,
I thought love
protected the breast.


Sliced Open II

I thought love

protected the breast

when you held me

close, through city

night streets.

But I became a statistic

one more who would divorce

following a seven year itch

you needed to scratch

within a decade

of gaining the right to marry.

Maybe it was brought on

by end of love

cells bursting

through anger, betrayal, shock

after fourteen years, an affair

end of love

why had I picked you

to cut me, sliced open

you didn’t mince words

when you left.


How to love a survivor

touch me, here

but not only here

and don’t be hurt

if I pull away

let me feel the pressure

of your fingers, of your


on my newly healed skin

touch my scars

but not only my scars

allow me the moment

to take in a breath

relieved that I can feel you

-- in some places at least --

that my body is whole

-- or wholly mine anyway --

and as we make love please

let me experience

the depth of my loss

and the breadth of my found



i thought it


a generation

this dis ease

i share with my


broken english-speaking

grandmother who taught me

to sew buttons on

napkins – safta,


told stories of escape

and fear and


at sixteen

i said goodbye

from the speckled

linoleum outside

her bedroom door

so she could

spare me

the sight of her


two decades later

for me it stopped

at the breast


after four quiet years

it got him

too – safta’s strong son –

first the kidney


but now possibly



weaving fabric through three


suddenly aged, i watch her

though weary eyes

still young and soft

i hope

my daughter’s enough

to break the




burnished gold

the name of the color

candlesticks smooth

those strands long and perfect

cold to the touch when unlit



on a plastic molded head

headcover over her


like yours, the lady sighs

grandma stands tall, lights fire

and I imagine

for a moment

I am strong again

she is strong again

I know it’s coming

welcoming sabbath

losing the hair



from my body

to the side

A note on form: Golden is a contrapuntal, which means it may be read both across and down.


Please note: The original formatting of some of these poems has been slightly altered with permission of the the author to account for online publishing limitations.

These poems have been included in prior publications as follows:
"Sliced Open I" Hashtag Queer Anthology Vol 2 (2017)
"How to Love a Survivor" Hashtag Queer Anthology Vol 2 (2017); This Thing Called Poetry: An Anthology of Poems by Young Adults with Cancer (Finishing Line Press 2019)
"Threads" Hashtag Queer Anthology Vol 2 (2017)
"Golden" Ink & Nebula (2018)


Amy’s list

If you're interested in processing through poetry, Amy shares some recommended reading and writing resources:

Learn more about the Academy of American Poets’ annual National Poetry Month celebration, including activities and free events throughout the month of April.  



The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.


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