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Editor's Commentary on 'Cancer is a Weed'

 , June 26, 2015

For those of us who are faced with our own vulnerability while comforting our patients in theirs, metaphors are important. As vehicles that transmit common values and meaning between writer and reader, metaphors are particularly helpful in grappling with experiences with conditions such as cancer.

In this issue of the Living Hand, we are offered a glimpse of one such metaphor by Sara Martin, a medical student at Harvard Medical School who writes about her father’s diagnosis of esophageal cancer. 

Cancer is a Weed” reveals Martin’s process of dealing with her father’s illness. Aesthetically, the poem succeeds, finding powerful imagery (the demanding and physical task of weeding under the hot sun) and effective language (communicating emotion, tension, and uncertainty). Her admission of not feeling survivor’s guilt reads honestly, her affections for her father genuine and endearing. 

Whether intentional or not, Martin’s imagery does another important work, connecting the cancer experience to that of human struggle. On one hand, cancer can be conceptualized as external and alien (it “attacks” and “invades,” compelling “victims” and doctors to join together and “fight”); it is a weed that must be shredded and eradicated. On another, however, we are forced to recognize it as a common byproduct of the human experience, something that arises from within (and often the result of aging and the passage of time itself). Both weeds and flowers are born of the same soil.

The picture of Martin toiling in her father’s place, then — a daughter taking on the burdens and labors of an ill father — signifies more than a family’s love, or the hope of medical cure. The juxtaposition also represents a lesson about the human condition: that decline is inevitable, whether rapid from cancer, or more slowly through normal aging; that this forces each of us to grapple with the possibility of death and the burden of life; that these considerations lead inevitably to memories of loved ones, and the moments, quirks and details that mark our lives with them. 

Joshua M. Liao, MD