Poet labels breast cancer a ‘fistfight with the devil’
Karla K. Morton, 50, remembers that she was ready to give up both breasts to cancer in 2009, the year she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease.
“I told them, ‘Take them. Take them both.’ I didn’t need them, it was fine,” said the Denton resident and 2010 Texas poet laureate. “They told me that was too radical. They would just do a partial mastectomy — a lumpectomy, they call it — and because it wasn’t in the lymph nodes, that should be enough.”
Morton is one of 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in America, said Mary Frances Hoover, the executive director of Susan G. Komen North Texas. Hoover said 2,100 people in the chapter’s eight-county area will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. About 270 will die from the disease.
What broke Morton’s heart was the possibility that treatment might cause her to lose her hair. She dreaded the thought of scratching her head and drawing back a clump of hair. Morton had the kind of hair a lot of women pay a lot for: thick, wavy blond hair that fell past the armrests of the recliner where she sat for chemo.
“This will sound like a cliche — women, we’re very tied to our hair,” Morton said. “I just didn’t want to lose my hair. I didn’t want to think about it falling out slowly. It was so, so awful to even think about scratching my head and come away with a cat in my hand. I couldn’t bear the thought of it coming out in clumps. I just shaved it all off — just cut it all off.”
Diagnosis: ‘News nobody wants to get’
Morton was at a clinic for a routine mammogram in 2009.
“I never miss it,” she said.
Like millions of women, Morton has something called fibrocystic breasts, which means the breast tissue is naturally uneven and sometimes lumpy. The condition is common. When she had the mammogram in 2009, technicians wanted to do a second scan because they noticed something troubling in the ones they’d just examined. The second scans showed something almost on Morton’s ribcage, and she underwent a biopsy that same morning.
She had Stage 1 of an aggressive form of breast cancer.
“That’s news nobody wants to get,” Morton said. “I sat out in the chair in my backyard. My first thought was, ‘I don’t want to die. I’m too young to die.’”
The worst thing was telling her two grown children, and it was hard to see helplessness and fear in her husband’s eyes. Stan Morton is the chief executive officer of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton. Karla Morton received her treatment at the hospital.
Cowboy boots and cussing
Every breast cancer is different, and every cancer patient is, too. Morton said she got through treatment with her own special cocktail of selective ignorance and a dash of salt.
“I got my warrior clothes on a little bit. I put my cowboy boots on. I started cussing a little more. It was like: ‘Oh hell no. It’s not going to kill me.’ You know?” Morton said.
She chose not to gather the details about her cancer, though.
“I know this probably sounds bad, but that kind of information scared me more,” she said. “It wasn’t helpful for me to know that information. I totally understand why people need to know that stuff, and I have nothing against them knowing. It just scared me.”
And she wrote her way through it. She wrote poems that were mad, sad and in a muddle. She laughed at cancer in verse. She seared the room where she sat for chemotherapy into her brain in poems made up of short lines and hard punctuation.
“Fear is the worst emotion,” she said.
Morton said a friend told her that faith trumps fear.
“I thought she was right. You don’t have to be afraid. You can choose not to be afraid. It was an emotional choice, and every time I got scared, I said, out loud: ‘No. No, I’m not going to feel that way.’”
Fighting the cancer, fighting the cure
Oncologists fight cancer with chemotherapy and radiation. Morton said she is thankful to this day that anti-nausea medicine was part of her treatment.
Chemotherapy required her to sit while hooked up to a intravenous line that pumped potent medicine into her body a few times a week, a few hours at a time. Morton recalls a false sense of strength after her first treatment.
“When I first started doing it, I thought, ‘I can handle this,’” she said. “But it builds.”
Morton’s oncologist put her on a course of medicine that tells the body to make more white blood cells, which die along with cancer during chemotherapy. The drug made it possible for her to have chemotherapy every two weeks. Morton said her oncologist told her to expect “some robust pain” from the medicine.
“I would have gladly stepped in front of a bus,” Morton said. “It was worse than childbirth. It was worse than a kidney stone. I was wailing. It hurt everywhere, especially any place you have a big bone — like your head and your pelvis.”
Morton wrote a poem about that drug therapy. It’s titled “Chewing Wasps.”
When her eyebrows and eyelashes fell out, Morton said she put on makeup, donned huge earrings and went on about her business. Some treatments were followed by exhaustion and a day in bed. Other days were hat-and-earrings days.
In nine months, Morton was declared cancer-free.
A new beauty
Morton put her poems about her breast cancer into a collection titled Redefining Beauty. Dos Gatos Press published the collection in 2009.
In the book, Morton writes about waking up during her surgery, and about hearing a boy scream for his mother in the next hospital room and understanding it on an atomic sort of level. She writes about the way life has a fussy way of going on despite deadly bugs and their angry poison chasers.
She avoided cancer support groups.
“I did not want to go and sit in a room and talk about cancer and fear,” she said. “I’m not saying anything bad about those groups or the people in them. I just couldn’t do that. I grabbed my pen and I wrote.”
Redefining Beauty is in its third printing.
A second bout
Last December, Morton was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was having a routine colonoscopy that revealed two polyps — one of which didn’t look good. She had 18 inches of her colon removed.
“The doctor said as soon as he saw it he knew it was cancer,” she said. “Of course, when you get that news, you think, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Not again.’”
Morton said the treatment for the colon cancer was harder. She was sicker from the treatment, and there were complications.
Ten days after her surgery, she developed a hernia. It ruptured and then severed her colon right where it had been removed.
She was declared cancer-free in July.
Two battles with cancer have changed her, she said.
“Emotionally, it has totally changed me. My tolerance for pettiness is pretty nonexistent. When you go down to hell and have a fistfight with the devil, you learn. What matters is love. Family. It’s about finding joy in every little thing.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
HER TEXAS: STORY, IMAGE, POEM & SONG
Karla K. Morton has poetry included in this upcoming collection of prose, poetry and visuals. A percentage of the proceeds will benefit cancer research. The book will be available for purchase in March.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Edited by Donna Walker-Nixon. Published by Wings Press, 448 pages, hardback, $50.
TO ORDER A COPY: Visit www.wingspress.com/book.cfm?book_ID=188
WHEN FEAR SPEAKS
I woke up during surgery
right there on the table,
the doctor’s hand busy
finishing up, installing my port
the nurse’s hand holding mine still,
my composure gone, erupting into tears
from the disorientation,
the lingering anesthesia,
the understood implications.
Wheeled into the recovery room,
I heard the little boy next door
wake up screaming,
begging for his mother.
I closed my eyes
knew exactly what he meant.
From Redefining Beauty, by Karla K. Morton.
Published with permission from Dos Gatos Press