To mark National Writers Day tomorrow LUEKAEMIA CARE has appointed a Poet in Residence. JAMIE WOODS is from Penllergaer in Swansea and is not only a fine poet, but used it to help him come to terms with his acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) diagnosis and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This is a key appointment for the charity who aims to ‘change the narrative’ around cancer and this is a key way to reach more people. With Jamie in residence it is a way to encourage more creativity in exploring the feelings associated with diagnosis.
In his new role Jamie hopes he will help others deal with their own cancer journey by writing, and reading poetry which can be a cathartic exercise. This hopefully will inspire more people to open up and share their journey as well as the charity having a way to reach more people affected by leukaemia.
Jamie told us…….
“Pre diagnosis, I was your regular dad, two kids. I had a job in community management. I also taught creative writing to adults at Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning.
“I thought I had the flu. I had some random bruises, joint pain, and then shortness of breath and a fever.. I only went to the doctor because my wife made me. They told me to go to the hospital as I was deteriorating very quickly. It turned out I had acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL), a rare form of blood cancer. I spent the next couple of months in hospital, and the next ten months having chemo, I’m in remission now.
In response to the Spot Leukaemia campaign, he wrote about his symptoms:
I Thought I Had a Cold
I thought I had a cold
I was so tired I ran marathons
limping to the kitchen
to take ibuprofen
for the pains in my joints
I blamed this never-ending cold
for the shortness of breath
I explained away the mysterious bruises
appearing on my skin
like Japanese knotweed
I thought I had a cold so
I had a lie-down and a lemsip for the fever
and only went to the doctor
because my laboured deep sighs
were annoying my wife
It’s a difficult subject to talk about for some, let alone write about. We wondered how Jamie was able to get his symptoms into a short poem?
“I picked out the key moments for me and linked them metaphorically. Those invasive Japanese knotweed plants reminded me of how the bruises were appearing. I wasn’t jostled and I didn’t bang into anything, where did they come from? A poem is much more likely to be remembered by people.
“I wasn’t really that interested in writing poetry until I got ill. I lost a lot of my memory and attention span so in the hospital I had a notebook to jot down numbers about my blood cell count, observations and notes to nursing staff. I struggled to remember what happened on a daily basis so reviewing these notes helped me make sense of it. Then I began to polish it and turning those notes into poetry offered me avenues to get it out of my own head.
“I took a pen and paper and jotted things down to make sense of things and get through the treatment but also to imagine what the future was going to look like.
“You can’t write when you’ve got pneumonia, or have been pumped full of drugs 24 hours a day, but there’s opportunities to be reflective when you’re waiting for your medication to be made up or on the IV.
“Chemo is a great chance to think about what’s happening and ask questions to yourself.
“I can look back at a fairly horrific time of my life, and see these little moments of clarity and create poetry.
“When I start writing a poem, I start with a word or an idea that’s just twisting in my head for days, I’ll write it down and work it out from there. People look for poetry moments in life, a turn of phrase or something that brings that little moment of joy or understanding or delight.”
So, in an attempt to make sense of his illness, and how it affected his body, Jamie wrote the following poem:
The Failed Promyelocytic Rebellion of 2019
the shell, intact,
but inside, white
blood cells rebel –
and like rebel cells,
they recruit and disturb,
disrupting means of production,
sabotaging the chromosomes,
and can’t be made to reason.
With their weaponised gene
they collapse colonnades –
from inside, the gunfire
cracks, the shell,
Coming to terms with a diagnosis like this is difficult enough, the help and support of family and friends is of course crucial. Leukaemia Care also have a fantastic community gathering where people can learn and share experiences…….
“I’ve struggled a lot with my mental health and since having leukaemia, I developed PTSD, so through writing therapy I explored the idea of a rebellion inside my body.
“I’ve got two kids and trying to explain complex matters to them involves the use of metaphor and simile. I had to break down conversations into bite sized relatable ideas. I’m proud of that one.
“Leukaemia Care for me isn’t just a lobbying and research organisation, it’s a caring community trying to achieve wellbeing through our Buddy Schemes and support groups which I’ve benefited so greatly from.
“Encouraging people to feel better about themselves and come to terms with what they’ve been through, or what they’re about to go through, is the reason I volunteered my services. I’m never going to run a marathon – my knees hurt too much, or skydive because I’m scared of heights. But I can write, and I’m a decent teacher. I can help you find your voice through writing.
“I see my role, as Poet in Residence, to amplify the voices of people with leukaemia, lymphoma and blood cancers, and those on Watch and Wait. Ultimately, I write poems for myself, but I teach creative writing to help others too.
“I’d like to work with any patients who want to come along and do some online workshops. We can explore writing for wellbeing. I write from the perspective of a 44 year old male who had acute cancer, but together we can write collaboratively, to collate a poem, from the whole Leukaemia Care family. The aim would be to try and encompass what we’re going through, what we’re fighting for and what we’re grateful for, what we’re sad about -a community poem.”
Another poignant poem by Jamie is Ring the Bell, which was commended in the Hippocrates Prize for poetry and medicine in 2021.
There’s this tradition,
to signify the end of treatment,
to mark the new you,
to ring in the new year:
to ring the bell,
ring the all-clear.
“It’s not for me”, I say.
“There’s others in this day unit
who may never get a chance,
and as much as they might be happy
that the man with the headphones
has finished his chemotherapy,
The ringing may just break their hearts,
as mine would if I heard that sound.”
But I live in fear that if I ring it,
if I do a little speech
and take some photos,
that the cancer will come back.
Then I’ll have done this to myself:
gloating that I had it beaten,
when it was still skulking in the dark,
a wounded tiger, regaining its strength.
Finally, Jamie told us…….
“Acute and chronic leukaemia are completely different worlds. There is such a disparity of experience, so there’s a lot of conversations about cancer treatment we can explore. I’d certainly like to do more of that.
“I’d like to contribute something to the world of literature as there’s not enough poems about leukaemia. There should be more poetry about illness and medicine in general. This is very close to my heart and I would like to be able to share that and as much wellness as possible.”
Males are most likely to develop leukaemia, yet in many cases, they are reluctant to share their feelings. Post-covid men’s mental health has never been more fragile – with more than one in eight in England experiencing mental health.
So Jamie created a poem specifically for men.
Toxic Cliches for Boys
Boys will be boys,
don’t cry, snips and snails,
stiff lip, chin up son,
force it down, deep inside.
No – unbutton quick now,
put those fists to good purpose:
tear apart the old code,
throw away the mould.
Because an apple a day
keeps on bruising and spoiling:
toxins spreading out of sight,
until we’re all out of time..
You can read Jamie’s full story HERE.
To find out more about the work of LEUKAEMIA CARE and the support they have available, head over to their website HERE.