Skip to Content

“Mary Oliver, MBC and Me” by Katherine O’Brien – A #MetsMonday Featured Post

It’s my pleasure to share this next #MetsMonday featured post by Katherine O’Brien. Katherine was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2009. She was a terrific (and often outspoken) advocate and sat on the board of Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, one of the premier organizations working to educate us all and to improve lives and outcomes for those impacted by MBC.

Update: Sadly, Katherine O’Brien died from metastatic breast cancer on June 19, 2021. #WeWillNotForget

I know you’ll appreciate Katherine’s wit and humor in her writing. I always do. Thank you for sharing your voice on Nancy’s Point, Katherine. Scroll down to leave a comment.

Mary Oliver, Metastatic Breast Cancer and Me

by Katherine O’Brien

After going on 12 years of living with metastatic breast cancer, it’s time I got something off my chest (so to speak):

I don’t like Mary Oliver.

There, I said it.

I can already feel the relief washing over me. I never heard of Mary Oliver until my 2009 MBC diagnosis. After that, she kept turning up like a bad penny. At conferences or on social media, people seemingly could not not get enough of Mary’s “The Summer Day.”

If you don’t recognize the title, you probably are familiar with the last line: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

That is certainly an appropriate question for anyone, let alone a Stage IV cancer patient, but c’mon Mary, lighten up. Always with the questions! Who made the world? The swan? The black bear? The grasshopper?

Yo, Mary, do I look like Jack Hanna?

“The Summer Day” has probably supplanted Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as the go-to poem when someone is actively dying or has in fact died. But there are millions of poems out there and even more being scrawled in angsty teens’ journals or Instagram stories even at this very moment.

Why not look a little further?

My Poetry 101 teacher, J.D. Daubs, often invoked Archibald Macleish’s Ars Poetica: A poem should not mean/But be. I have a much more pragmatic take: Just go with anything by someone named “Robert.”

Consider the following:

Robert Burns: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley.

Robert Louis Stevenson: The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Browning: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Frost: Nothing gold can stay.

Robert From The Cosby Show: Hello, Vanessa.

There are a few exceptions to the Robert’s Rule of Poetry: Any poem incorporated into a Bullwinkle & Rocky episode is surely a classic. (Or, if nothing else, in the public domain.) Perhaps you remember the “Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam”? (Or perhaps not.)

“The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is the title that Edward FitzGerald gave to his 1859 translation from Persian to English of a selection of quatrains (rubāʿiyāt) attributed to Omar Khayyam. You probably have heard bits and pieces of it such as, a loaf of bread a jug of wine and thou…

How about: The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on : nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Since my 2009 MBC diagnosis, I have gone from “You have cancer” to “Now you have a lot more cancer and a lot fewer treatment options.”

Over the past 11 years, I have been on eight different drugs for ER+ breast cancer. I’ve had some years of stability interspersed with progression to my bones and liver. I have been truly fortunate to have an overall great quality of life.

But as we know, nothing gold can stay.

Living with MBC is fraught with uncertainty. Along the way, this verse from the Rubáiyát has often popped into my head:

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare; To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair: Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where!

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mary!

BIO: Katherine O’Brien was diagnosed with ER+ metastatic breast cancer in 2009 at age 43. She edited trade magazines for many years and belonged to the Professional Organization of English Majors (P.O.E.M). In her spare time she nursed grudges, harrowed up old grievances and brooded over the many injustices perpetrated against her, up to and including the time her sister took all the red knee socks, leaving her with the perpetually drooping green ones.

Follow Katherine on Twitter and Linkedin.

To get more articles like this one delivered weekly to your inbox, Click Here! #KeepingItReal #SupportYouCanUse

Do you have a comment or something to share about Katherine’s legacy?

Are you a Mary Oliver fan?

Mary Oliver, #MBC & Me, A #MetsMonday Featured Post by Katherine O'Brien #breastcancer #metastaticbreastcancer #BCAM #poetry #advocacy

Lisa Valentine

Wednesday 28th of October 2020

Thank you for this wonderful post and the levity Katherine! I appreciate that you give voice to those with MBC here Nancy. I do like Mary Oliver, but I appreciate your take on life just as much Katherine. Write on!

Barbara Bigelow

Tuesday 27th of October 2020

I am That
by Swami Rama Tirtha
(1873-1906) I have no scruple of change, nor fear of death, 
Nor was I ever born, 
Nor had I parents. 
I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, 
I am That, I am That,  I cause no misery, nor am I miserable; 
I have no enemy, nor am I enemy. 
I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, 
I am That, I am That,  I am without form, without limit, 
Beyond space, beyond time, 
I am in everything, everything is in me. 
I am the bliss of the universe, 
Everywhere am I. 
I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, 
I am That, I am That,  I am without body or change of the body, 
I am neither senses, nor object of the senses, 
I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, 
I am That, I am That,  I am neither sin, nor virtue, 
Nor temple, nor worship 
Nor pilgrimage, nor books. 
I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute, 
I am That, I am That.  

Kristie Konsoer

Tuesday 27th of October 2020

Love the quotes by all the Roberts. I know I'll come back to this piece often when I need an extra boost of Katerine's wisdom.


Monday 26th of October 2020

I follow your tweets - especially when you have to go for your next treatment! Your humor gets you through so much (or it gets ME through you through so much!). And I love The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; a student gave each of us in the International Office one to ponder and they were all right on! Thanks for your insight!

%d bloggers like this: