Jasper-raised poet pens cathartic, necessary book
In December of 2013, Beth Everest went for a regular mammogram.
In doing so, the former Jasperite was simply being prudent. She was being proactive. After all, her younger brother had passed away from cancer two years previous. She was not naive to such things.
As it turned out, when a nurse from the hospital called to request a follow-up ultrasound, despite the nonchalant tone, Everest felt a pang of dread.
“I knew,” she said. “Something inside of me said ‘this is not good.’”
Everest’s instincts proved correct. Shortly after a series of tests, she got another call. This time it was her doctor, who wanted to see her right away. Everest was on her way to a dinner party at the time. The doctor said it couldn’t wait.
“That’s how it started,” Everest said.
As she feared, Everest was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly, she was having a biopsy. A month later, she had a mastectomy. After her scar healed, she started chemotherapy. Then it was radiation treatment.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” Everest said. “I would cry all night. I can say that was a pretty dark period in my life.”
Now, that dark period has been illuminated. Everest, a creative writing professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, is launching a new book of poetry. Silent Sister: The Mastectomy Poems puts the fear and trepidation of those terrifying months on full, cathartic display. More than a narrative of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, however, the award-winning author’s new work bears witness to social and psychological impacts of the cancer-altered body and mind.
“When people looked at me, they’d look at the breast that wasn’t there,” she recalled.
Everest hadn’t planned to write about her illness. She had another book in mind—a work of fiction, based on her home town of Jasper. However, when it came time to write the stories for which she’d conducted months worth of interviews, they wouldn’t come. Instead, she’d end up with poems that described her battle with cancer.
“Every time I sat down to write, something came out to do with the treatment,” she said.
Eventually, she knew she had to give in to the creative process. Two months later, the first draft for Silent Sister was born.
Now, as Jasper readers will discover on November 10, the poems are a product of her vivid memories, prescription drug-addled hallucinations and nature-inspired dreams. The effect is both visceral and rhythmic, unsettling and beautiful. It is also necessary—particularly as we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Although Everest hopes that her book will find a wide audience, appeal to poetry fans and help other breast cancer patients heal, the true inspiration for writing it was much closer to home—although she didn’t realize the gravity of that inspiration until she went back to Jasper.
“I went into my parents house and saw them sitting there with the book,” she said. “My dad had just read it from front to back in one sitting.”
Her parents, who’d outlived their youngest child and who had now almost lost their daughter, were deeply moved by what they read.
“That’s why I wrote the book,” Everest said.
Silent Sister: The Mastectomy Poems will be launched at the Jasper Library on November 10, 6:30 p.m.