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Michelle Merritt '15

Their World at Wofford: Michelle Merritt

Michelle Merritt ’15 shares her family’s journey through breast cancer during her medical humanities capstone project

Michelle Merritt ’15 remembers walking into her parents’ room as a 10-year-old and hearing them in the adjoining bathroom. Although she couldn’t see her parents, she could tell that her mother was crying. It was during Liliana Merritt’s second bout with breast cancer; the first was when Merritt was just three.

Although Merritt turned around and never spoke with her parents about the tearful moment she overheard, the memory remained so vivid that years later she put herself into her mother’s shoes and turned it into a poem, “Liliana,” part of her senior medical humanities capstone project at Wofford.

“Because I was so young when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t really ask her a lot of questions,” says Merritt. “I made up for it this fall.” Merritt, a biology major with a concentration in medical humanities, wants to become a pediatric oncology nurse practitioner. Although she’s fascinated by the medicine, she’s been just as intrigued by the feelings generated by a cancer diagnosis.

In addition to gathering facts regarding the disease—diagnosis, procedure and chemicals used to treat the cancer—Merritt delved into emotional responses. Each chapter in her medical humanities thesis represents a different perspective: the doctors, her mom, dad and older brother.

“Each chapter assumes a distinct voice in my mother’s journey,” says Merritt. “They contributed to her successful progression and ultimately influenced mine.”

Dr. G. R. Davis, Wofford professor of biology and Merritt’s medical humanities adviser, knew that in addition to studying biology she has written poetry since high school. As they met weekly to talk through the planning and progress of the project, he noted that her voice was absent and encouraged her to put her memories, thoughts and feelings into poetry.

"Could you write as if you were the cancer inside your mother?” Davis leaned across the desk and asked during one of those meetings.

Merritt’s poem, “Cancer,” from the perspective of the disease, was so powerful that Davis now has both poems and a sketch drawn by Josh Holt ’14 on display in the Roger Milliken Science Center (glass case gallery on the first floor).

“Here we have two student-athletes—Michelle, who plays basketball, and Josh, who played football—working together and pursuing interests outside of their regular course work,” says Davis. “It’s nice to be able to do medical humanities here at Wofford where a student like Michelle can combine her love of language and poetry with science.”

Merritt gives Davis lots of credit for the passion she put into her capstone. She also is quick to thank Dr. Ellen Goldey (biology), Dr. Charlie Bass (chemistry) and Dr. Carol Wilson (English) with helping her craft, review and present her project.

“Articulating my family’s journey has been rewarding, and I appreciate everyone who helped make that possible,” says Merritt, who showed her parents the poems and drawing when they were on campus for a home basketball game (although they live in Miami, Fla., the Merritts come to almost every home game).

“We were all in tears,” says Merritt. “My mom said, ‘Michelle, I’m so proud of you. I only hope this journey is mine and never yours.’”

According to Merritt, however, they both know that the odds say otherwise.

“Every woman in my family has had breast cancer,” says Merritt. “Ironically enough my mom had the genetic test, and it came back negative.”

Merritt, who has raised funds for breast cancer research since she was in middle school, now advocates for early detection as well. She believes sharing her capstone will help her do that.

“Sharing our story isn’t about pity, but about empowering women and men who have breast cancer to stay positive and hopeful. If they do that, they can get through it. My mom is a testament to that,” says Merritt.

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89



JoshHolt_Cancer

Cancer

by Michelle Merritt ’15

Virtues of anarchy
Nourish my being.
Assaulting insubordinates
With malignant casualties.

Ghastly,
Horrid,
Perpetuating
Havoc.

Destructive by nature,
I pervade throughout.

Subversion
Defies my existence.
Compromising order
Agitating the system
Infringing upon stability.

The system has altered
To one of lawlessness.
To one of oppression.
To one governed by me.

Invade and spread.

Singular destruction
Of a sole entity,
One at a time.

How blissful it is
To subdue
The functional unit
Of a host.

To elicit disarray
With my act of
Proliferation.

Rampant,
Unbridled
Freedom.

I am sovereign.

Liliana

by Michelle Merritt ’15

I gently close the bathroom door behind me.
Shutting out the world,
For just a moment.

Yet, I escaped nothing
For I cannot run away from myself.
The me I fail to recognize.

I cautiously undress,
Peeling away my shielding garments:
My socks, my pants, my shirt, my underwear,
And lastly, my bra.

With eyes closed, I stand naked,
Unable to face my reflection.

For a brief second,
I pretend
That none of this happened,
That I was not stripped
Of all grace and elegance.
That I was not stripped of femininity.

I can no longer play
My game of make-believe.

Unable to meet my twin,
I avoid the mirror
And look down where my
Right breast used to be.

There lies the scar
That defined my womanhood,
Or lack of.

Tears stream down my face,
As my eyes met my own glance.
I am face to face with
My own frightening reflection.

I stand nude,
Left bare and demoralized
With no hair
And one sagging breast.

How did I want this?
How could I be so stubborn,
When insisting for complete removal
Of my right breast.

Ugliness is all I see.
Vulnerability, pity,
And shame follow.

As I quietly vow,
My husband will never
See me like this,
He walks in
And closes the door behind him.

I continue to cry,
As my head drops
Out of embarrassment.

He walks over
And kisses my forehead.
Chills pass over me,
As his warm lips
Meet my cold and rigid body.

For a moment, I escaped
And left the world.
A world that continuously demands
Strength and composure.

I entered a realm
Where just for a moment,
I can be weak
And naked.

Just for a moment, however.
For I cannot live in a
Game of make-believe.