Words Heal: Coping With Cancer


When a full-time writer's husband was diagnosed with cancer, she found writing poetry helped her cope. She guessed that others would, like her, find their experiences with cancer best expressed through poetry. So began The Cancer Poetry Project.

When Karin Miller’s husband, Thom, was diagnosed with cancer, she found writing poetry helped her cope. Miller, a full-time writer and editor, guessed that others would, like her, find their experiences with cancer best expressed through poetry.

So began The Cancer Poetry Project-a national effort to collect poetry that captured the cancer experience. Today, the two anthologies Karin created are often selected by cancer support groups for discussion or purchased by cancer organizations, and are frequently given by individuals to friends and loved ones affected by cancer. Fans of the books say again and again that the poems let them know that they are not alone in the cancer experience

I was honored to have my poem “Playing in the Band” (which appears in my second book, Secret Wounds) selected as the winning poem in the health provider category for the Project’s second anthology. The cash award has been donated to the new cancer treatment center at Berkshire Medical Center, in Pittsfield, Mass. [The 2-minute video of the poem is below and can also be found on YouTube].

The occasion for “Playing in the Band” was my 50th birthday party. The poem begins on a perfect June night with neighbors near and far calling the state police to shut down the music Even though I had the party approved in advance by the town selectmen and the state police, a cruiser pulled down our driveway at 11 PM and told us to pull the plug. I considered this a sign we were still young enough to be a little rowdy.

The poem is organized around Van Morrison’s classic song “Gloria.” At one level, the song is a teenage “sex song”-Gloria comes up to Van’s room around midnight and makes him feel so good, “she makes me feel alright.” But the chorus also has a spiritual side, and the poem turns at the moment the band begins singing “G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria!” and I realize how many of my friends and family members are surviving with cancer.

The video was recorded by the awesome JT (aka Joshua T Yurfest) on a damp, drizzly Berkshire afternoon this winter in front of the meadow where we partied.

Thanks again to Karin Miller for all her creative energy, hard work, and commitment to the Cancer Poetry Project. For more information about the Cancer Poetry Project, and to view more videos and selections from the two anthologies please visit http://www.cancerpoetryproject.com/

I hope you enjoy the poem.

Playing in the Band

All over this moonlit mountain neighbors call
the cops, and the cops call TURN IT DOWN,
but it’s too late to stop “Wild Night”
with a hundred people dancing so hard
they’ve thrown off their shoes.
I’m turning fifty with a star-burst
guitar hanging at my hip,
rhythm hand keyed to the high hat cymbal,
and when Billy rakes E-D-A and sings
“Let me tell you ‘bout my baby,”
we crank it up another notch,
sweat pouring, wine pouring,
fireflies flashing like a marquee,
Billy belting out G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!
his hair grown back from chemo, a glory,
my step-father, on vacation from chemo, a glory,
Steven, smiling, one day post-chemo, a glory,
James in his crazy tux, finished with chemo, a glory,
my friend Marlena, and my mother dancing
without their breasts, a glory,
all of us shimmering in summer’s halo,
bandaged by rags of music and moonlight,
playing in this glorious band of the living,
shaking in time to our lives.


Dr Berlin is Senior Affiliate in Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His second collection of poems, Secret Wounds, which won the 2010 John Ciardi Poetry Prize, is published by BkMk Press.

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