Panic and fear ran through Elisabeth Kuhn’s mind 13 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “The very first thing I thought was ‘I’m going to die. How long do I have left?'”
by Elisabeth Kuhn
All fall I worried.
The lump in my breast
didn’t go away.
The mammogram caused
alarm. And the needle biopsy…
It’s probably nothing, my doctor said,
we didn’t find any cancer,
but we still don’t know
why you have the lump.
It has to come out,
of course, but you go
and have a nice Christmas
first. So I went to Germany
where I saw my ex
and made love for the last time
with both of my breasts
intact (he hardly touched
the one with the lump) and I told
my brother, my sister, my friends,
about the scare
that turned out to be
Kuhn, an associate professor of English, turned to poetry to express her experience battling cancer.
She recently published “Average C-Cup,” a series of narrative poems written during her struggle. The book received national attention – one poem was read on National Public Radio. Many critics praised her strength in dealing with the aftermath of cancer.
“Foremost among those issues is her battle with breast cancer, a battle culminating in a partial mastectomy that leaves her with breasts of two very different shapes. In a world that values women according to their appearance, she struggles to decide where that puts her. Different poems show her in different places, but in general she is optimistic, strong enough not to be broken by anybody looking at her body strangely,” one reviewer, Kevin Nenstiel, wrote on Amazon.com.
Kuhn said one of the most difficult side effects of chemotherapy is that it made her weak.
“There’s something disempowering about being sick because you don’t have control of your own body. You can’t do the things that you normally do. I tend to be very independent in my personality, and that was hard for me,” she said.
Going through treatment was more complicated than Kuhn had thought it would be. But it also allowed her time to turn to books and writing to ease the emotional pain and give her a sense of control over her life.
“It helped me process the emotions I was going through and gain back some empowerment. When I was experimenting with this poetry, what you get is – you put it out there, and you craft it and shape it, and you take control over it. Part of the intention was really to make people look at things in a way they don’t normally look at. But it portrays my journey,” Kuhn said.
During Kuhn’s earlier stages of treatment, when she found herself in deep despair, she discovered a book called “Cancer as a Turning Point,” written by psychologist Lawrence LeShan. After reading his book, Kuhn was able to transform her views about cancer from terror to optimism.
“He (LeShan) argues that on some level, cancer is despair and manifested at a cellular level. People are sad and despaired. The immune system doesn’t really fight for them. In order to strengthen the immune system, you should find a way to love life. To get excited to get out of bed in the morning,” Kuhn said.
A main focus of Kuhn’s writing was to explore issues that patients face after a mastectomy or other operations.
“The women in my support group were married or were single and had no interest in dating – and this bothered me. How do I tell a guy why my breasts look the way they do?” she explained. “This was a healing thing to write about, and it was empowering.”
Just as Kuhn has praised LeShan’s book, LeShan praised “Average C-Cup.”
“Elisabeth Kuhn writes not so much about herself as about the universal in her experience and reactions. . It has been very exciting to discover her. What she writes, about herself, and sometimes about living with her cancer, is about the human experience and condition. To read her is to expand something in yourself,” LeShan said.
Turning Point Books published “Average C-Cup” in April. “Bathrooms,” a poem from the book, was read on NPR’s “Writer’s Almanac” in July. Other works include “Breasts in the Mirror,” “Marked for Life” and “Dating with One and a Half Breasts.”
Rosa Marks, a former English student at VCU, said her view on cancer changed after reading “Average C-Cup.”
“Her poems really show us that despite the depressing, difficult situation, she can still find a way to add humor and optimism. She turns emotional despair into one that appreciates life while revealing truths that most people who had been through the situation normally wouldn’t talk about,” Marks said.
Kuhn was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. Although “Average C-Cup” chronicles her experience as a surviving cancer patient, more than half of the book consists of poems that describe her coming-of-age in Germany.
The book not only projects an optimistic outlook but also reassures cancer patients and breast-cancer survivors that they are not alone. Kuhn said it’s important for patients to know there’s always hope.
“The messages that the poems in this book focus on is to not give up and to learn to live life in a positive way,” she said.