Three questions answered by the winners of the BMC ‘Cancer Awareness’ poetry competition

Diversifying the discussions about cancer can increase support and inclusion in the cancer community. In this Q&A, we speak to Aida Cavalic and Shari Rhodes about their winning entries (Cancer and Hazel, respectively) and what inspired them to share their stories through poetry.

(Top) Photo courtesy of the author (AC)

What is the inspiration behind your work and the background of your poem?

Aida Cavalic, a winner of the BMC ‘Cancer Awareness’ Poetry Competition 2019.

AC: I lost my mom to a short and brutal fight with lung cancer, and this poem came out about four months after her passing. I feel it transcribes pretty literally the concurrent emotions I felt at that time: feeling at a loss to explain death to my 3 year old daughter while trying to come to terms with it myself; the duality of sifting through memories of my mom and wondering what, if anything, my daughter would remember of her; and, finally, the pure magnitude of the grief.

SR: Cancer has touched my life profoundly. I have lost family, friends, and clients to the disease. Both my parents died from cancer, and just this weekend, my good friend Hazel, for whom I wrote this poem, passed away. That special summer evening, cooking dinner and sharing meaningful conversation with lots of hugs, deeply impacted me. Hazel was so open, vulnerable, honest, and present with me.

It gifts the opportunity to be more compassionate, empathetic, and kind with other people, realizing we are all human. —Shari

She let her walls down, allowing her deeper self to be seen. I felt inspired to write the ‘Hazel’ Poem because our sharing touched my heart and soul. I read my poem to her just a few days before she passed. She loved it and felt our friendship was beautiful and heartfelt. This weekend, a group of my friends went to Waihi beach in New Zealand to celebrate our good friend Ian. He has been our neighbor and best friend for twenty years. He is currently at end stage metastatic esophageal cancer.

Cancer makes people vulnerable and real. The walls fall away and deeper emotions become transparent, naked, and raw. When people are on the edge of death, they recognize time is fragile, and the moment is all they have. I have shared deeply with people on the cancer journey, talking about sensitive and gritty subjects that otherwise wouldn’t be revealed. I have experienced emotional intimacy and heartfelt connections that have changed me and made me a better person. I have become more present, empathetic, and sensitive in my relationships. I have learned that the important things in life are sharing from the heart, being open and honest, listening and speaking the truth, and sharing lots of cuddles and tender moments.

Poetry allows me to put words to feelings I can’t fully define for myself. —Aida

Though cancer is painful and hard, many of my loved ones see it as a gift of growth and learning. Facing mortality makes you a more conscious, wise, and stronger person.It gifts the opportunity to be more compassionate, empathetic, and kind with other people, realizing we are all human, and one day we all will pass. Life is embracing the magic in the moment and being present from the heart.

How long have you been writing poetry, and what do you enjoy about the process?

AC: I’ve dabbled with poetry since high school but would not consider myself a ‘poet,’ even in the most cursory definition of the word. When I feel I have an idea I’m ready to express, I find myself most comfortable in the short story milieu. And yet, poetry is what I reach for, subconsciously at times, when there is an immediate, inchoate emotion to pass on; I find that poetry allows me to put words to feelings I can’t fully define for myself.

SR: I have always loved to write. I have written poetry and kept journals since I was a child. Words are my passion. I enjoy exploring my feelings, experiences, and perceptions of the world. I do a lot of automatic or free writing, channeling anything that needs to come through. It is a healing, transformative, and cathartic process—getting my deepest emotions out on computer or paper. I have lots of journals and have participated in several poetry and creative writing workshops. I loved writing essays and examining the human psyche while studying psychology at University. I have published several articles about social issues, psychology, and personal development. Writing is the deepest expression of myself and is my greatest joy. Publishing my own book is my ultimate dream.

What are some of your favorite books to read?

Shari Rhodes, a winner of the BMC ‘Cancer Awareness’ Poetry Competition 2019.

AC: For pure fun, I love a good YA/lesbian romance or crime novel (bonus points for both). As for poetry, I repeatedly go back to these poets (list [is] far from all-inclusive): Anne Carson, Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), June Jordan, Mary Oliver, Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood, and Naomi Shihab Nye.

SR: I am passionate about reading. I always have a great book going. I love reading about spirituality, relationships, self-development, medicine, psychology, bereavement and spiritual growth. Some of my favorite books include: Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber; A Year to Live and A Gradual Awakening by Steven Levine; Death: The Final Stage of Growth and On Death And Dying by Elizabeth Kübler –Ross; Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom; Handle with Care and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. My favorite book series include Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh; the Kyron series by Lee Carroll; Destiny of Souls and Journey of Souls by Michael Newton; You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay; and The Light Shall Set You Free by Norma Milanovich and Shirley McCune. The list of my favorites is endless!

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