Jeff McCallum's ability to describe the pain of cancer both physical and emotional -- was called a "dark gift" by one caregiver. His ability to do so may have played a large part in his healing.
In "Somebody's Bright Balloon," a collection of poems published this fall, McCallum offers an experience that many cancer survivors and current patients will recognize. He doesn't just describe the cancer experience, he brings it to life for the reader through metaphor and imagery.
I recently watched my mother bravely struggle through 30 radiation treatments aimed at destroying the cancer in her urethra, and I feel grateful to have crossed paths with McCallum so she could come to know the poems. Only one who has traveled the same lonely road would truly understand her fears. The fears come from not just physical pain but the emotional pain of knowing your life will never be the same expansive future you have grown accustomed to. It's having to gather up your strength, character and will to accept and go on living well.
Diana Burgess, a research psychologist with the Veterans Administration and mother of three young children, is all too familiar with McCallum's experience. "These poems captured my experience in a profound way," said Burgess. "I could not believe how much he captured -- from the mundane details to the emotions."
McCallum, 55, is a commercial building contractor in Minneapolis and serves on the board of directors of Mixed Blood Theatre. He was born in the Yukon Territories and moved to Minneapolis in 1964 when his father, Sandy McCallum, became a resident actor at the newly opened Guthrie Theatre.
McCallum's cancer experience began in 2003 when he was diagnosed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic with cancer of the salivary gland. Along with surgery to remove the cancer from his parotid gland and masseter muscles (those used in mastication) along his jaw and neck came painful daily radiation treatments and a history of low survival rates among patients with similar cancers. McCallum says the diagnosis and difficult treatments brought his life into focus. The enhanced perceptions of life and death prompted him to write about the experience through poetry.
"I often think the impulse to write and express is like an immune system function," says John Fox, director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine, based in Palo Alto, CA. Fox, who lectures and gives workshops on the healing aspects of poetry, believes writing may have contributed to McCallum's own healing. By writing about his experiences, McCallum was "involved in what was happening to him on his own behalf. He stayed in touch."
The healing aspect of writing has been the subject of numerous scientific studies, with neurologists, psychiatrists and other health care experts studying the physiological benefits of poetry and other expressive writing. Research suggests that repeated writing may help eliminate negative emotional responses to traumatic memories, and reduce physiological stress.
"Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations," wrote Karen Baikie, a clinical psychologist in New South Wales, Australia writing in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2005.
Cortney Davis, a Redding, Conn., nurse and published poet, joined McCallum at a writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence College that brought patients and healers together to explore writing about medical issues.
"As a nurse I have cared for cancer patients, and have often been amazed at their ability to face pain, disability and suffering with hope, joy and a never-failing desire both to live every moment and to share their lives with others," said Davis. "As a writer, I know how difficult it is to write of such suffering without lapsing into sentimentality. Jeff writes with honesty and clarity about his own journey through the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. He chronicles both moments of despair and moments of triumph; most of all he digs deep into the illness experience to make it accessible to all."
Howard Spiro, professor emeritus of medicine at Yale University and founder of Yale's Program for Humanities in Medicine (its journal was one of the first to publish some of McCallum's poems), observed: "McCallum writes from the perspective of one instructed by illness and pain. If such instruction brings the kind of compassionate insight McCallum demonstrates in these poems, then suffering might be called an awful gift. We cannot escape, in life, the reality of suffering. We can only hope that we might offer our suffering and our recovery, as McCallum does, for the benefit of others."
Many of the poems were initiated during 45 days of radiation treatment at the Mayo Clinic while McCallum was a "guest" at Hope Lodge in Rochester. McCallum calls the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge "a home away from home" for patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. A percentage of the sales of his book are dedicated to the Rochester Hope Lodge.
Somebody's Bright Balloon is available at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Minneapolis, and through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com
I am not Angry
I have seen the sunrise
more than one ocean
kissed someone I loved
loved someone I lost
smiled at my children
coaxed a child to smile
or try again
watched the sun set
always promising tomorrow
felt god hold me always
even when I fell so far
there was no sky
Shake me gently
do not let me slumber
love of life
and of life's loves
Let me care
wish I were better
at being better
gave more to strangers
stopped to taste the world completely
vanilla to pistachio
stood tall on principle
Left earth behind for somebody's bright balloon
I had briefly seen her
heard a snippet here and there
noted the missing hair
thin and thinner still
coming in slowly
I was too busy with myself
pacing and pacing and chasing my tail
to say hello
I have had cancer
both and always too
It took seeing you her once twice
walking the halls dressed and wrapped in a blanket
sitting silent in the middle of the middle of the middle of the floor
lying on the coach
wrapped again in the blanket
before I thought to stop
to say quietly
Can I help
Can I you forgive me
*Poems reprinted with author's permission.