I was diagnosed with cancer when I was pregnant

Asked by: H., Long Beach, USA

Answered by: Diana Khoi Nguyen

H., Long Beach, USA

Hello Diana,

Long time no see. A lot has happened since I last saw you. I really enjoyed watching readings from your first book online. Congrats on your new poetry book, can’t wait to get my hands on it and read it. I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer when I was pregnant with my now almost 4 year old daughter back in 2020. I’ve been trying to get back to painting. Life changes when a doctor tells you that you may have less than 5 years to live. I had to quit college art teaching due to side effects and also didn’t know how long of life I had left. It’s been a hard last several years. Luckily my first line of treatment is still working, my last scan showed I am still stable, and I’m hoping to live to see my daughter grow up. I’m always looking for some healing words to lift me up.




Dear H.,

It has been so many years—S. came to my book launch in LA at Skylight last month, and mentioned that you had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I receive your life updates with much tenderness about the pregnancy journey, new motherhood, and departure from teaching college art. It is heartbreaking to hear that the last several years have been hard, and I cannot imagine. Yes, truly—so lucky that your first line of treatment is holding, that the scans are stable, that you’ve been here with your daughter, and I hope that you are here for many, many more years.

I, too, am a newish mother—we have a twenty-two month old, and because I’m traveling so much for work and this book tour, I feel like a guest sometimes, in my own home—and it’s as if my child has aged a year each time I see her. It brings to mind a book I read, maybe in middle school, about a boy who experiences some form of a singularity—he’s in a capsule, trying to stay alive eating crackers, where time moves at a much slower pace than the world outside his capsule; for every minute inside the capsule, it’s an hour or more in the external world. Or something like that. Honestly, I’m not sure why I shared that. Perhaps because I hope that time has not been moving for you in this way, and perhaps because this is the most direct way I can approach sharing my regrets and failure to be present in this early stage of my child’s life. 

I have been remembering you, recalling your incredible paintings, reflecting on the teaching and art you have done, and imagining the many intimate, familial moments that have been shared between you and your daughter, and it moves me to reconnect with you in this way.

Immediately I’m thinking about this piece from poet Ross Gay, “Tomato On Board,” which is from The Book of Delights, which is technically prose, but I think of his prose as prose poems for their lyric logic and joys. Gay is someone who has the power to (re)orient me toward wonder, even when I feel hopeless. I’m sending you hope, light, and much joy.

Tomato On Board

What you don’t know until you carry a tomato seedling through the airport and onto a plane is that carrying a tomato seedling through the airport and onto a plane will make people smile at you almost like you’re carrying a baby. A quiet baby. I did not know this until today, carrying my little tomato, about three or four inches high in its four-inch plastic starter pot, which my friend Michael gave to me, smirking about how I was going to get it home. Something about this, at first, felt naughty—not comparing a tomato to a baby, but carrying the tomato onto the plane—and so I slid the thing into my bag while going through security, which made them pull the bag for inspection. When the security guy saw it was a tomato he smiled and said, “I don’t know how to check that. Have a good day.” But I quickly realized that one of its stems (which I almost wrote as “arms”) was broken from the jostling, and it only had four of them, so I decided I better just carry it out in the open. And the shower of love began. It was a shower of love I also felt while carrying a bouquet of lilies through the streets of Rome last summer. People, maybe women especially, maybe women my age-ish and older especially, smiling with approval. A woman in a housedress beating out a rug on a balcony shouted Bravo! An older couple holding hands both smiled at me and pulled into each other, knitting their fingers together. My showerers might have been disappointed to know I was not giving the lilies to a sweetheart but to my friends Damiano and Moira, who had translated a few of my poems into Italian and were so kind as to let me stay at their place a few nights while I was passing through. On the way to the vegetarian restaurant Damiano’s ex-wife owns with her partner, we walked by what I’m pretty sure Damiano said was the biggest redbud tree in the world. It stretched for yards, lounging periodically onto the mossy earth, its beautiful black bark glistened by the streetlights. Though translation is an act of love, so my showerers needn’t be disappointed at all. Before boarding the final leg of my flight, one of the workers said, “Nice tomato,” which I don’t think was a come on. And the flight attendant asked about the tomato at least five times, not an exaggeration, every time calling it “my tomato”—Where’s my tomato? How’s my tomato? You didn’t lose my tomato, did you? She even directed me to an open seat in the exit row: Why don’t you guys go sit there and stretch out? I gathered my things and set the li’l guy in the window seat so she could look out. When I got my water I poured some into the li’l guy’s soil. When we got bumpy I put my hand on the li’l guy’s container, careful not to snap another arm off. And when we landed, and the pilot put the brakes on hard, my arm reflexively went across the seat, holding the li’l guy in place, the way my dad’s arm would when he had to brake hard in that car without seatbelts to speak of, in one of my very favorite gestures in the encyclopedia of human gestures.

-Ross Gay

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