Healing Through Words: CanLit and Cancer

In my recent blog post Reading Through Cancer, I underscored the importance of books and literature and how these have helped me to cope with my cancer diagnosis. In this post I’d like to celebrate literature that is Canadian, or CanLit for short. I like it when this genre is defined simply: “CanLit is writing by people connected to this country (Canada), by birth or residence, and a dialogue between author and reader.” In my case I think the relationship I have to my country’s literature is quite complex, I’m a Canadian, a woman and a cancer patient. My personal interpretation of Canada’s books and authors is uniquely shaped by all three of these viewpoints.

I found a wonderful example of this fusion recently when I was reading Scars & Stars, a book of poetry by Canadian author Jesse Thistle. Jesse Thistle is Métis-Cree from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, he’s the author of one autobiographical book, From the Ashes, in addition to his published collection of poems. In both, Thistle writes about his struggles, particularly his battle with addiction. He candidly depicts his past life, often giving vivid details about his existence on the streets and in prison. 

While I’ve never lived in homeless shelters and cannot fully view the world from an Aboriginal man’s perspective, there are still certain aspects of Thistle’s writing that resonate with who I am and what I’ve experienced. I know what it’s like to have cancer, to be relatively poor and to be a middle-aged woman. When he writes about being extremely sick or in physical pain, I can relate to his suffering. When he writes about feeling invisible, ignored or being on the margins of society, I’m connected to that on some level as well.

One poem from Scars and Stars that had an extraordinary impact on me when I read it is called Oncology Ward, it focusses on Thistle’s bedside visit to his grandmother when she was dying of cancer. At the time he was on strict probation and living in a rehabilitation centre or halfway house. The visit was difficult to arrange, but Thistle knew that it was probably the last chance he would get to go see his grandmother, the woman who had raised him. With the assistance of a friend the barriers were surmounted and he was taken, one final time, to see her.

Oncology Ward 

I sit on your deathbed, Grandmother.
You’re gaunt
with eyes sunken in
hollow cheeks
orbital and mandible bones sticking out
as you chew your food.

You don’t look as well now,
at the end of winter’s season.
That eternal sun that lit up your youth
has set behind old age.

Your hospital gown hangs
like wind-torn sea sails
strewn across storm-broken masts.

But there’s defiance left in you,
a glowing ember
a spark
a flicker
a flame.

“Have courage, dear grandson,” you said, your eyes
meeting mine,
“we’ll beat this cancer yet.”

Many years after it took you,
a part of me still thinks you can beat it.
A part of me knows that you did.

Jesse Thistle

That last visit to speak to his grandmother on the oncology ward was one of the most important moments of Jesse Thistle’s life. It was then that he promised his grandmother that he would return to school and get a post-secondary education. He promised her that he would turn his life around. Looking back, he says that one heartfelt pledge that he made has guided him in all his current success, through all the peaks and valleys of rebuilding his life. Today Jesse Thistle is a husband and father, as well as an assistant professor of humanities at York University in Toronto.

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