Skip to Content

Publications

'Poetic license' helps recovery from head and neck cancer

Network - Summer 2013

By Mary Brolley

All things considered, Susan Singer Kerschner is fortunate.   

Though she never thought she’d develop squamous cell carcinoma in her tonsil and endure weeks of grueling treatment followed by months of difficult recovery, she was able to weather the experience thanks to some extraordinary gifts.

One was the support of family members in Houston who encouraged her to travel from Pennsylvania and stay with them while she was treated at MD Anderson.

They drove her to appointment after appointment, handled her medications, bought special food she could swallow and offered endless comfort and encouragement.             

Susan also has a natural resilience, buoyed by a strong sense of humor.  

And there is her way with words. A poet, Kerschner used the literary form to express her feelings as she navigated the tricky path from sickness to health.   

Diagnosed in March 2010, Kerschner had her first surgery near her home in Reading, Pa. She came to MD Anderson in May of that year and underwent weeks of radiation, then another surgery.

All told, she spent six months in Houston.

For her recovery, she credits her supportive family and her “brilliant doctors,” Randal Weber, M.D., chair of Head and Neck Surgery, David Rosenthal, M.D., professor in Radiation Oncology, and Rony Dev, O.D., assistant professor in Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine, as well as their dedicated support teams.

Help from unexpected places

Her fellow patients also offered humor and solace. Three years later, Kerschner clearly recalls the camaraderie in even the most fleeting encounters with them.  

“While waiting in line, another patient once asked me, ‘What are you in for?’ ” she says.  

“A man overheard what I’d said about my cancer. He told me he’d had the same kind of cancer and the same treatment.

“I’ll never forget him or his kindness. He told me, ‘It’s do-able.’ ”  

She pauses, then laughs. “It wasn’t, but I’m still glad he said it.” She also found comfort from talking to other survivors through the Anderson Network.

Kerschner didn’t plan to write her book of poems, “The Shoulders of Country Roads: My Journey From Head and Neck Cancer,”  But she found MD Anderson “a wonderful place to write.”

“Waiting to see a doctor or to receive treatment was difficult,” she says. “So I ended up writing a lot in waiting rooms.” She also wrote at night, in bed, when she found she couldn’t sleep. “It was cathartic, soothing,” she says.

Kerschner’s book is divided into five sections, with four of the chapter headings in common medical shorthand (“Fx” for fracture, “Dx” for diagnosis, “Tx” for treatment and “Rx” for prescriptions). All the poems are vignettes of her journey from the beginning to the end of her illness.  

Back in Pennsylvania, Kerschner is a human resources manager at Boscov’s, the largest family-owned department store chain in the country.

Here's an excerpt from Kerschner’s poem
“Simple Things:”

The medical pronouncement
you are now free to go
turbulence has subsided
preparing me for the next six months
before poking and prodding restarts


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center