How writing can be good for the body


Experiencing breast cancer led to Shirley McClure writing poetry, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

ON THURSDAY, poems will be distributed on meal trays in hospital wards, in outpatient clinics and staff canteens in hospitals around Ireland. The Poems on the Menu initiative – this year co-ordinated by the writer Mai Leonard on behalf of Naas General Hospital – is an arts and health project now in its fourth year.

The project began in the Waterford Healing Arts Trust (What) at Waterford Regional Hospital and events have been organised every year since then on October 4th – All Ireland Poetry Day. This year, What will further celebrate the day with a poetry reading, Waiting List, by Waterford-born poet, Shirley McClure.

McClure was chosen to read because she has written poetry about her experience of breast cancer. It is her first time involved with the project.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. Both my parents had recently died of cancer and I went on to have a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. I managed to escape chemotherapy and radiotherapy by participating in a clinical trial for a hormonal drug treatment,” explains McClure.

“While I was in hospital after my surgery, my surgeon noticed that I was looking morose. He talked to me and asked me what I liked to do. First, I said I love to swim – which was out of the question at the time – and then I said that I write poetry. So then I asked a friend to bring in my dictionary and thesaurus and I wrote the poem Mastectomy. Later I wrote Reconstructed about the time I went to visit a woman in Wicklow who had had a double mastectomy.” Both poems were published in Shirley McClure’s first collection of poetry, Who’s Counting (Bradshaw Books, 2010).

“I had already written about half of the poems in Who’s Counting – many of which are light-hearted. So the poems about breast cancer are a bit of a change.” Shirley McClure got married in 2008, soon after her breast reconstruction surgery was completed. “I remember meeting people who’d say – I heard your news, I’m so sorry and I heard your news, congratulations.”

McClure wrote a poem about the parallel experience of being measured up for a breast implant and then a month later being measured up for a wedding dress.

She also drew on her professional experience as an aromatherapist and shiatsu practitioner/teacher while having treatment for breast cancer. “I had a weekly shiatsu session during treatment which helped my energy levels, kept me grounded and connected with my body rather than feeling afraid and alienated from it. I also used relaxation CDs in the hospital and later. And I use aromatherapy for the menopausal symptoms which are a side effect of the hormonal drug treatment I’m on still,” she explains.

The whole experience of breast cancer coupled with her developing interest in writing has opened up a new avenue for McClure who has worked with aromatherapy and shiatsu for 20 years.

“I found writing poetry about the experience really helped me get to the core of what disturbed me. It wasn’t all about the distress or pain of it. There was some humour and I felt physically released and relaxed in my body after writing,” she explains.

More recently, she has completed a course on creative writing for therapeutic purposes at Falmouth University in Cornwall and teaches creative writing to groups on request.

In advance of her reading on Thursday, McClure says that one has to be careful about the poems one reads in hospital settings. “I wouldn’t choose hard-hitting or stark poems even though I’ve got a lot from poets who write like that,” she says.

She has found that even at poetry readings for the public, people sometimes come up to her afterwards with various reactions. “Some say that they can relate to what I’ve written. Others cry. The poems about breast cancer seem to hit a chord with women who’ve had the experience of cancer. It’s so common now.”

Shirley McClure will give her poetry reading in the church at Waterford Regional Hospital, Dunmore Road, Waterford, on Thursday at 1.15pm. All welcome. Admission free. Call 051-842664

McClure will lead a workshop on

Writing for the Body on November 4th at St Patrick’s Church Parish Centre, Greystones, Co Wicklow. For details, call 086-6034481 or see

Waiting list

The new breast

is always fridge-cool.

Hot-palm its pleats

it is teen-pert,


soap-stone round.

Tracked across

the almost-centre


where they sewed it up,

a fist’s width

below the oxter.

Still nippleless,

I am a polished moonstone


Shirley McClure

From Who’s Counting?

(Bradshaw Books, 2010)


At her kitchen table

in the stark morning

of New Year’s day,

a woman I’ve just met

spreads marmalade

on toasted soda bread,

recounts the ins and outs

of losing both her breasts.

Before I know it

in her keenness

to prepare me

as no doctor could,

she is pushing aside

cups and crumbs,

pulling wool and cotton

up over her ribs,

straining to unhook

her hospital-white bra.

Faced with the tender

drumlins of her chest,

each raked with

a flat red seam,

I am swept away

that it is she

who is consoling me

her wise heart

which has remained


Shirley McClure

From Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books, 2010)

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