Maggie and I made our usual stroll through the neighborhood park as we do each morning. Although she’s much more interested in squirrel patrol than the other dogs who arrive with their owners for a romp in the off leash hours of early morning, we always stop to greet other dogs and people for a few minutes. Invariably, the introductions begin, both human and canine, and with that, the frequent question to me: “You mean you moved from California to Canada?” Yes, I explain, we decided to return to Toronto after many years away. “But the winter here; how could you leave a place with such great weather?”
My explanation is as familiar as the question I’ve been asked so many times. I’ve longed for the changes and colors of four distinct seasons. I felt, in a place of temperate year-round weather and seemingly constant sunshine, as arid and thirsty as the landscape. For some, and I’m one, my spirit and creativity are fed by the predictability of Nature’s changing seasons—but then, I grew up in a place where all four seasons arrived on their designated calendar dates and each offered new discoveries, colors, smells, and adventure for a young girl. I feel more “at home” in a place where Nature’s colors and moods are more distinct, just as the little field mouse, Frederick, expressed when he recited his poem to his small companions during the long winter months: “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?/Think of a year with one less…or one more!”(From: Frederick, by Leo Lionni, 1967)
The Seasons of Life: Our Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death, written by authors John Kotre and Elizabeth Hall in 1967, described how Nature’s seasons are not only metaphors for life’s journey, but how human life is intimately connected to the seasons, for example, the times of day, circling of the planets, phases of the moon, or growth and harvesting of the crops (University of Michigan Press, 1997). The ancient Greeks defined life’s stages as seasons: childhood was spring; youth became summer; autumn described adulthood, and winter, the metaphor for old age.
This cyclical nature of life and living reflects what we witness in nature. I recall a French Canadian film the title long forgotten, where two characters were talking of aging, one, uncomfortable with growing older, but the other seeing their ages differently, as autumn, which she called “the other side of spring.” I have thought of her definition often as I’ve grown older. My life is still colorful and vibrant, but I also know life’s colors will gradually fade as I move toward elderhood and the winter of my life.
Seasons figure in discussions of the different stages of illness and cancer. In a 2009 article in Cure Today, Kenneth Miller, MD, described four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship. His observations were informed by his patients’ experiences, and by his wife’s. In this excerpt, he compares her stages of cancer and recovery to the seasons of nature:
I have learned just as much about cancer and the seasons of survivorship in my work as a medical oncologist as I have alongside my wife, Joan, he wrote, who was treated 10 years ago for acute leukemia and more recently for breast cancer. Her diagnosis was certainly like the cold, bleak winter, and transition like the rebirth of spring. And while each season was different than the others, each was beautiful in its own way. (http://www.curetoday.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/article.show/id/2/article_id/1142)
Miller then defined what he termed as the four distinct phases or “seasons” of cancer survivorship.
- Acute survivorship: when a person is diagnosed and treated.
- Transitional survivorship: when celebration is blended with worry and loss as a patient pulls away from the treatment team.
- Extended survivorship: includes those who are living with cancer as a chronic disease and individuals in remission because of ongoing treatment.
- Permanent survivorship: people who are in remission and asymptomatic, or,
cancer-free but not free of cancer because of chronic late and long-term health or psychosocial problems. Others may even develop secondary cancers related to cancer treatment, or develop second cancers not related to the first cancer or its treatment.
We use the metaphors of seasons to describe many things, but seasons may be more than just metaphorical when it comes to the cancer journey. In a 2007 study, researchers from Norway and Oregon found evidence suggesting that men diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer or autumn had better survival rates. Vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin–plays a part. In other studies with early stage lung cancer patients, high concentrations of Vitamin D appeared to contribute to a better survival rate post-surgery. Patients whose surgeries occurred in sunny months (May – August) had a 30% higher survival rate than those who had surgery in winter. “Season,” epidemiologist David Christiani noted, “had a pretty strong effect.”
Whether diagnosed or treated with cancer in summer or winter, the seasons of an illness may dominate our lives and how we think of our experiences. Marilyn Hacker’s 1994 collection of poetry, Winter Numbers, invokes the darkness and cold of winter as she details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS or cancer as she struggled with breast cancer. Dan Matthews, using seasons as metaphor, chronicled the journey of his wife’s terminal breast cancer in a poetry collection: Rain, Heavy at Times: Life in the Cancer Months (Aragon Publishing, 2007). John Sokol wrote about his cancer in a poetry collection entitled In the Summer of Cancer. And in one of my favorite poems by Barbara Crooker, “For a Friend Lying in Intensive Care Waiting For Her White Blood Cells to Rejuvenate After a Bone Marrow Transplant,” the season of springtime signals a time renewal and rejuvenation:
The jonquils. They come back. They split the earth with
their green swords, bearing cups of light. ‘
The forsythia comes back, spraying its thin whips with
blossom, one loud yellow shout.
The robins. They come back. They pull the sun on the
silver thread of their song.
The iris come back. They dance in the soft air in silken
gowns of midnight blue.
The lilacs come back. They trail their perfume like a scarf
of violet chiffon.
And the leaves come back, on every tree and bush, millions
and millions of small green hands applauding your return.
(From: The Cancer Poetry Project, Volume 1, 2001)
For now, I look out my window across the street to the park, where trees are plentiful, offering a verdant canopy of shade and even, during a downpour (as Maggie and I discovered) a natural umbrella, and smile, remembering a favorite e.e.cummings’ poem:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(“I thank You God for this most amazing,” in Complete Poems, 1904-1962)
Whatever season or landscape that offers you solace and inspiration, or is an apt metaphor for whatever stage of life you are experiencing, why not write about it?
- Write about the seasons in your life, whether the cancer journey, a marriage, loss and grief, adulthood– any of life’s seasons that have been important or significant to you in some way.
- If you are a cancer survivor, explore how Miller’s “Seasons of Survivorship” apply (or not) to your journey. Which “season” was the most difficult to endure? Why?
- Explore cancer in a poem, using seasonal metaphors to describe your experience.