Haley’s Poetic Playlist: “Cancer”

Hey, lovelies! We’re back this week with a tribute to Breast Cancer Awareness month.


I’ve chosen the song “Cancer,” originally by My Chemical Romance, because this insidious disease has affected us all. And, if I could be frank, it sucks. This song captures the pain and emotion associated with cancer, and I think it is a moving piece. The track is originally off My Chemical Romance’s 2006 album The Black Parade, but just about a month ago Twenty One Pilots released a cover, and both will be available on the playlist below.

A little background on the song might be helpful. MCR’s album The Black Parade details the journey of “the patient” and his agony as he ultimately passes away from cancer. In an interview, lead vocalist Gerard Way once claimed that the group aimed to write “the darkest song ever.” He claims that “Cancer” is not poetic, but rather direct and brutal just like the disease. I think it’s safe to say that MCR achieved their goal here.


[Verse 1]
“Turn away
If you could get me a drink
Of water ’cause my lips are chapped and faded
Call my aunt Marie
Help her gather all my things
And bury me in all my favorite colors
My sisters and my brothers, still
I will not kiss you
‘Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you”

The verse begins with the protagonist asking his loved ones to refrain from looking at him, most likely because of the extreme effects cancer has on the appearance of the body. He asks for a drink of water, not only because of the dehydration many cancer patients face, but probably to make his loved ones feel as though they’re helping him in a time of incredible powerlessness. Water could also be seen as a metaphor for life, with both his lips and his life being “chapped and fad[ing].”

“Call my aunt Marie” could possibly be read literally, but I found one interpretation that claimed this could be referencing the Marie Curie Cancer Foundation and the speaker’s desire for a cure. So, he could be asking his loved ones to help his aunt through her this, or he could be asking the foundation to find a way to cure him. He probably wants the family to find his “favorite colors,” so that he can look more like himself at the funeral. What a beautiful and tragic line.

These last three lines are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the song. While he isn’t sick with something contagious, he refuses to kiss the people he loves because this protagonist knows he will be passing away soon and it’s too difficult to maintain a close bond with the people he loves.

[Verse 2]
“Now turn away
‘Cause I’m awful just to see
‘Cause all my hair’s abandoned all my body
Oh, my agony
Know that I will never marry
Baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo
But counting down the days to go
It just ain’t living”

Again, this patient asks those he loves to look away, most likely because their concern and pain is so obviously splayed on their faces. He is also aware of how alien he looks compared to his former, healthier self. He details this thought by personifying the common side effect of hair loss due to his “soggy” chemo treatment. He then goes on to exclaim his frustration and pain with the fact that he won’t be able to marry the person he loves, which makes the song even more catastrophic; you learn here that the speaker is likely young.

He is anticipating his death because the quality of life during deeper stages of cancer is obviously miserable. He feels that he isn’t living, but rather just existing. It is apparent that cancer makes him believe his life is pointless and hollow. This entire verse has some lovely slant rhymes at the end of each line (see/body/agony/marry) that I think really tie the stanza together.

[Verse 3]
“And I just hope you know
That if you say (if you say)
Goodbye today (goodbye today)
I’d ask you to be true (cause I’d ask you to be true)”

Here he’s asking his loved ones, or perhaps the person he was planning on marrying, that he wants them to truly say goodbye to him, which would allow for some sort of closure.

“‘Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you
‘Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you”

Apart from the obvious discomforts cancer inflicts on its victims, the protagonist claims the worst part of the whole ordeal is having to officially say goodbye to the people he loves.


I will concede that the song itself is at times sentimental, something seen as a detriment within the poetic community. However, I think the piece uses its clichés to its advantage. The bleak, frank language captures the brutality of cancer, and the manner in which the songs are sung really hammers home the heartbreak of watching a loved one go through the pain of such a dehumanizing disease.

I think this piece also captures the selflessness of cancer patients: the song is really the protagonist trying to take care of things before he passes away. The short length of the song also reflects how quickly cancer can come and go, taking those we love with it. All in all, this is a tragic piece that swiftly sucks readers and listeners in and then carelessly spits them out: truly a piece of poetry.

My regards go out to all of those affected by cancer.

In memory of Thomas Renison

— Haley Renison, Poetry Editor

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