Sara Machnik was diagnosed with breast cancer in the middle of the pandemic — a cancer diagnosis is isolating enough, but COVID protocols made it difficult to connect with other warriors, friends and family. But then she started writing poetry, and Sara was able to face the darkness and turn her experience into something beautiful.
As told to Francesca Halikias
Before my breast cancer diagnosis in July 2021, I was a full-time teacher. My husband and I both worked full time. I don’t have children, but I was around kids every day, and I had my own classroom. It was a busy lifestyle.
No one in my immediate family has had cancer, and with breast cancer oftentimes they look at your mother or your sister or your aunt. I had no one that had been diagnosed, so cancer was not in my mind or at all in my life.
I had no physical symptoms aside from finding a lump in my breast — I had never actually done breast exams before — but one night I was in bed, and I was adjusting my shirt when I felt a lump. I said to my husband, “Do you feel this? Is this just in my mind?” And he said, “That is kind of weird, maybe we should get it checked.”
I called my doctor, and I had an ultrasound the next day. They told me they’d get back to me in seven days. They ended up calling me within two hours, and they told me to go get a biopsy. I think they had flagged my ultrasound, and then I got nervous. I called my mom, and she said she’d had cysts in her breast before; it’s probably not a big deal. I asked two of my friends and they’ve had lumps, which have all been benign, so I went into the biopsy thinking it’s just going to be precautionary, but a week after my biopsy, I found out it was malignant, and everything changed for me. I had stage II, grade III breast cancer.
July 2022 is my first “cancerversary,” I guess as people say. It’s very strange to think about. Last year, I was thinking about what I would look like without hair and what surgeries I would need. Being on the other side of it brings up quite a few emotions for me.
I did chemo from October to December 2021, and then I did 20 rounds of radiation from January to March. It was a new experience — not being able to have any support people with me. I couldn’t have my husband or my mom or my friend, but in a way, it fostered a unique and fierce independence in me that I don’t think I’ve had before.
My first poem I ever wrote was during chemotherapy. I read a lot of poetry books. I’m a big fan of poetry, but I never considered writing poetry myself. But I feel like it just poured out of me in the midst of chemotherapy and losing my hair, losing a lot of friends, losing what I felt like was my whole future. I didn’t know how to deal with those emotions, and not knowing anyone in my circle that had been through cancer before — no friends and no family — and then COVID on top of that; it was extremely isolating. I started writing poetry every morning when I woke up.
“It surprised me that people enjoy my writing. It feels very personal to me, like my little baby.”
A lot of darkness came pouring out of me, so initially I hadn’t thought about sharing it because it didn’t seem positive or uplifting or inspirational; it was just very dark. But being diagnosed with cancer, what did I have to lose? The worst thing that would happen is people could say, “We hate your poetry, and you suck,” and that’s it. I was like, you know what? I don’t think I’m going to fall apart hearing that. I already have cancer. I’m bald, I feel awful, I have no self-confidence. What is the worst thing that can possibly happen? It’s a unique perspective — to be stripped away of everything you thought you had.
I started posting my poetry, and it became a nice way for me to express myself without having conversations with every individual person. It was nice for my family and friends to know this is how I feel. Then it turned into a really nice way to meet other cancer survivors. I talked to quite a few cancer survivors from all around the world: New Zealand, Australia, England. It’s been so nice to have connections in that way while I was confined to my house because of COVID. Being able to meet people online was therapeutic for me.
I have a separate social media account that I started, and it surprised me. I was featured in Wildfire Magazine, and I was also featured recently in Psychology Today. It surprised me that people enjoy my writing. It feels very personal to me, like my little baby, and when it gets shared, I get so excited. It’s been a very exciting process — people have appreciated my writing and enjoy it and reach out to me. I would love to continue writing.
I would love to write a book; that would be my long-term goal. I would love to release my poetry as a collection. I already have ideas to show how I feel like I’ve come full circle, and found the light — the light after the darkness. I wish I had that for chemotherapy and cancer treatment. I wish I could’ve read something that was like, OK, you’re going to go through this hard time, and it’s going to feel like the darkest, longest tunnel of your life, but in the end, you’ll come out the other side. You’ll see the light and your perspective will change. Things will become so clear. I wish I would have had something to connect to and resonate with. I would love to write something that’s both the darkness and the light. Both sides of cancer, both sides of treatment, and moving on with life after.
Connect with Sara on Instagram @saralou.writes
in the beginning
my mother told me
it will surprise you
who lights a candle in the darkness
& who fades into the shadows
I have never heard
the applause of strangers
& the silence of loved ones
as deafening as this
my body lets me know when I’ve had too much sugar
by kindly presenting bumps on the surface of my face
my body sounds the alarm bells when I have too much to drink
turning my belly, pounding my head and blurring my vision
but my body was silent, peaceful, even tranquil
when the cancer cells were invading
she didn’t raise the red flag, sound the alarm bells or even let out a noise
she simply slept soundly
how can I trust her
when she lied?