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When Your Life Becomes the Story: Poetry and Prose

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJune 22, 2020View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

I love to read. Ever since I was little, I could pick up a book and disappear into the story. 

These days, it’s getting harder and harder to sit down and open a book. I don’t know if it’s the effects of quarantine and social isolation, or simply a pre-existing lack of motivation. Since I was diagnosed, I have struggled with having the motivation to do the things I love; I’m two years out from diagnosis and I still get so tired so quickly. Whether this is related to treatment or a symptom of mental health struggles, I can’t be sure. But, I can be sure that it affects me on a day to day basis. 

Fatigue is real, and it is so frustrating, whether it’s a result of the cancer or not. It keeps me from doing so many things that I love to do, and that includes reading. 

I have a large stack of books on my dresser that spans about 12 titles in total. Those are all of the books in my “TBR” or to be read pile. The thing about my stack of books is that I have to be in the mood for a certain book. And when I’m not in the mood, I simply go looking for something else to read, even though those books have been sitting there begging me to read them for months. 

And, unfortunately, when I get excited about something like a new genre of books, I get obsessed. 

For example, for a while I was consumed with reading books about finding fulfillment and answering the big questions of life. Cancer really brought my whole world crashing down, and I’m still trying to find my footing again. I honestly don’t know what I believe anymore, spiritually or otherwise. But what I do know is that I can still get lost in a story.

I ordered about three books online about answering life’s questions and started each one. However, I have yet to finish any of them. And now, I’m in a kick wanting to read more creative nonfiction instead, so of course, I’m very close to ordering even more books to add to my TBR. 

Will I ever pick up those books and take charge? When will I be able to enjoy a written story again? 

It feels like such a big undertaking. I used to be able to fly through books; the year I was diagnosed I read almost 50 books. At this point in 2020, I’ve read fewer than 10. Mind you, a lot of those books were audiobooks, and when I would lie awake in bed the night after chemo facing insomnia from the medicine and the nausea, I would turn on an audiobook. Sometimes I would just lie there for up to three hours, just waiting for sleep to come and trying to concentrate on something other than my exhausted and aching body. 

I don’t know why I just can’t seem to pick up a book again. Maybe classes have gotten more stressful or I’ve been consumed with other hobbies that hold my attention more than reading does. Maybe I should get back into audiobooks and see if that helps, but I am such a visual person and I enjoy having the physical pages to hold in my hands and mark my progress. 

Regardless, I still appreciate the significance of stories. Life is all about telling stories. In my world literature class this past semester, our opening lecture was on the importance of stories. Stories fuel our lives and keep us going. We make stories out of things that weren’t even meant to be stories; we long for narrative that much. 

The thing about the stories we read or watch is that there’s typically an ending. You can wrap the plot up in a tight little bow and be done with it. 

That’s not life.

We are continuously growing and changing and recreating our own narrative. I definitely have trouble with that concept; if I had my way, I would just skip to the end: the parts where I’ve recovered emotionally from cancer and have put the pain of the past completely behind me. 

Maybe that’s why I love books so much. I can see the whole picture. I can feel the ending coming. I know that I will get to see all of the characters develop into who they are meant to be by the end. 

However, it’s the chapters of hardship that define a character and make the ending so significant. Watching someone grow can be a gift, and going alongside them on that journey is an even greater gift. 

Sometimes I just want to expedite the process, but I need to realize that it’s the hard moments that define a person. I am being molded into a stronger, wiser, more empathetic person through this journey. It’s a process.

Even though sometimes I wish it wasn’t. 

But my story isn’t over. So I’m going to keep going, page by page, and chapter by chapter. 

* * *

when your life becomes the story 

I haven’t picked up a book

in the longest time

it used to be

my favorite pastime 

transposing stories

to adventures in my mind 

but now those adventures

are tiresome

and picking up 

300 pages of narrative

seems exhausting 


I think I’ve been too consumed

with my own thoughts

to entertain those of another 


thoughts of my future 

thoughts of my past 

have woven their own story 

in my head 

the story where

maybe I find healing 

maybe I feel more pain 

maybe I get to start over again 


I speculate 

at my own future 

and the conflict, 

the character development, 

and the foils

that will show up


because my life 

has become so much like 

the stories I have read 

so I wonder

when this heroine 

will create her own destiny 

earn her wings 

and fly 


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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