Oh, it is so tempting! It starts out innocently enough. I've always said that knowledge is power, so simply looking up a term, or a procedure, or a pharmaceutical seems like a good idea and it certainly can be. But I start with a specific search and next thing I know I've clicked down the daisy chain of cancer-related sites, drifting far from my original inquiry, and finding myself shaken and horrified by a heretofore-unknown-to-me-something-new to worry about. There are so many dismal numbers out there... and the language of research is by definition so devoid of humanity that it can ring as unkind to a survivor facing whatever it is the research is addressing. And then there are the nutty sites --- the ones that provide dubious information because they are ultimately trying to sell something, whether a product or a political agenda. Some of these sites are immediately obvious, but some of them are pretty slick in their ability to create fear and doubt before revealing their true nature. So why do I do this to myself?
Well, I don't do it very often anymore. Occasionally I do, and I always regret it. I think that earlier on I had a secret hope of finding some piece of information that might transform my experience in some miraculous way. Or perhaps sometimes I think it might ease my anxiety to know all the potential negative outcomes so I can be prepared for them should they occur (yeah, that never works). Whatever the reason, it isn't helpful.
So now that I've been at the business of survivorship for a while, I know to limit my searches to trustworthy sites, and I know to stick with my original search terms. While knowledge is power in many cases, it is not always so.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I will be sharing part of my art collection live and in public! If you are in the neighborhood, visit the White Rabbit Bakery (21386 Hwy 99E, Aurora OR 97002. www.whiterabbitbakery.com) October 5-31 and check it out!
Breast cancer awareness really does need to graduate from pink ribbon marketing. Don't get me wrong: Pink ribbon campaigns have been an important part of getting people to talk about breast cancer, self exams, mammograms and the like. Significant amounts of money have been raised for research and programs, which is awesome, and from which I have undoubtedly benefited. And I'll be the first to admit that burly football players look adorable in hot pink socks. What is missing is a genuine awareness of what it is we are actually festooning with pink ribbons: A devastating disease that can only be addressed via high stakes treatments. Breast cancer awareness is also about recognizing that one every eight women in your community... yes, one in eight... will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in her lifetime. We're talking about people like your mother, sister, daughter, aunt, niece, best friend, neighbor, therapist, hair stylist, accountant, co-worker. You.
And if you're a gent, don't think you're immune. Breast cancer rates among men are also on the rise.
The venue for this art show, the White Rabbit Bakery, is a special place. Specializing in delicious gluten free treats, owners Emily and Oscar care about the quality of their goods, sourcing high quality, non-gmo ingredients. They are also exceptionally nice people, who have been unfailingly kind and supportive to me personally. Whether they recognized it or not, they were part of the community that got me through some pretty rough patches (amazing what a gluten free, vegan cupcake can do when judiciously applied to a really bad day). They are also part of the community who shares my vision of locally expanding true awareness of the issues associated with breast cancer -- amongst friends and neighbors.
So come and visit! I of course can't be there all of the time, but I plan on doing some lurking. Introduce yourself! We'll chat!
“You're not the same as you were before," he said. "You were much more... muchier... you've lost your muchness.”
- The Hatter to Alice in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Between falling down the rabbit hole and going through the looking glass, poor Alice was obliged to eat and drink things with strange effects, was mistaken for a flower, was given all manner of cryptic information by a variety of strange characters, was nearly be-headed, found herself forced to play a high stakes game of chess, and was ultimately unceremoniously dumped back into "reality" and expected to be her usual self as if none of it ever happened. No wonder she lost her muchness!
This painting is about re-finding my muchness.
Represented in the painting is the giant chess game played with an unpredictable opponent capable of changing the rules as the game progresses. There is a red brick castle (bearing a striking resemblance to Providence Portland Medical Center) where Alice repeatedly confronted the Queen of Hearts, the incarnation of capricious disease. A white rabbit in a lab coat provides guidance through a strange landscape but always seem to be running late and in a terrible hurry. The Red Queen (not to be confused with the Queen of Hearts) is a nemesis of Alice but also helps her win the chess game (did you know that the Red Queen's middle name is Adriamycin?). A Cheshire Cat represents a Soul Mate's ability to always appear at just the right moment, big goofy grin and esoteric references and all. At the top of the steps is the Hatter, slightly mad (but as we know, all the best people are!), who helps Alice face her fears. (A Hatter may also teach one to competently use a firearm during a period of weakness and vulnerability and inability to practice Krav Maga.)
And then there is my tough, red-headed protagonist. Alice has defeated the Queen of Hearts and in commemoration tattooed a Queen of Hearts playing card on her forearm, the card torn so that the Queen is beheaded. She's sending the Red Queen back to the castle, hoping to never see her again. Alice is blowing the smoke off the end of her gun because she has been practicing her marksmanship (in a parallel reality, it turns out to be really fun to use one's removed chemotherapy port as a target). Her friends the Hatter, the Cat and the White Rabbit have her back.
Around Alice's neck is a key... which I leave to your imagination...
Breast cancer is a bitch.
I was having a really bad body image day when I painted this. My intention was to show the tension and discomfort of having a body that neither functions or looks the way it used to, but is still not without strength or its own beauty.
Why is she green? Frankenstein is green. Aliens are green. Monsters emerging from lagoons and lochs are green. Kryptonite is green. And green is the color a person turns when they see something that makes them nauseous. It isn't that I beat myself up or am overly self critical about my appearance; its more about living with disfigurement, scars, muscle and nerve damage, ongoing medication side effects that damage hair/skin/nails and sexual function, and the necessity for medical garments that make your granny's undies look downright sexy in comparison ...
I refuse to make apologies for or try to 'pretty up' these feelings. They are what they are. I certainly don't live in this space on a daily basis; it comes and goes like a big green wave. But on those days my body is a Creature.
(The rest of the time I am an ass kicking force of nature. Just sayin.')
Risorgimento in Italian means "Rising Again." It seemed to take a long time but I came to a point when the worst of the flames were behind me, though I could still feel the heat. I felt vulnerable and unprotected, and I couldn't help but fear spreading my wings, thinking I might be tempting fate. I could almost imagine the smell of burning feathers: but there was also a definite surge of energy and a renewed interest in reclaiming my life. But life as I had known it was gone - consumed by the flames of illness, treatment and the aftermath of both. Relationships had changed, my career path had changed, my body had definitely changed, my priorities had changed, everything had changed. In a bolt of clarity I realized that surviving cancer had taken but also given, and I felt the tension of being caught between the depression of loss and the joy of knowing my own strength and potential...
As a friend said, this painting probably isn't one that would end up hanging above grandma's sofa.
I painted it from a Victorian photograph I found online (and yes I did look, and no I did not find that it is copyrighted... but credit for the concept definitely goes to the original photographer, whomever he or she may be!). The image spoke to my newly deliberate practice of accepting that life will, indeed, kill me someday.
Shamatha means 'peaceful abiding' or 'calm acceptance' in the Buddhist tradition. It has to do with learning to be with what is. In Western cultures we are typically quite uncomfortable with the idea of our own mortality, and we work hard to avoid the whole disquieting reality of the fragile nature of our bodies. The problem is that the evidence of our impermanence is constantly around us --- certainly illnesses, injuries and deaths among our close associates are a clear reminder, but also the constant stream of media covering violence, accidents, natural disasters and topics related to illness. And don't forget the fictional reminders via TV shows, movies, video games and literature.
It seems odd that death as an abstract concept is so ubiquitous in our culture, and yet we actively avoid incorporating mortality in any meaningful way into our lives. I am finding that in not running from my eventual meeting with the Grim Reaper, I am much freer to actually live --- really and truly live --- my life. I find I have deeper compassion and connection with others. I find myself less critical; I'm less invested in 'things' and more appreciative of small joys; I laugh more; I cry more; I sing more; I have a deeper tolerance for annoyances; and I'm much, much less anxious.
From my heart to yours, the wish for Shamatha.
Freedom from fear.
Surviving cancer requires a great deal of genuine bad-assery... We are one tough crowd! This does not mean, however, that there aren't days of pure bravado. Nearly three years past diagnosis, I find myself gritting my teeth some days, trying to look like I've got it all squared away. 100% fraudulent. I think there is a general perception out there that once cancer has been beaten back, life returns to normal.
People have asked me why I paint about cancer, why I talk about it, why I eat differently and make different life choices than in the past. It's because the battle continues. I fight with how my body looks and functions now due to treatments; I fight with my mind; I fight with my emotions; I fight with my memories; and I fight with the ever-present awareness that cancer could come back. Most days I can stare it all down. "Nice Fangs," I monotone to the tigers in my head.
I find it ironic that on Independence Day I am fighting with my lack of independence from the aftermath of cancer. I went to the optometrist yesterday to get new contacts, and at the end of the exam he informed me that I have developed a cataract on each eye: "Likely from the chemotherapy." Well. In the grand scheme of things, this probably isn't a big deal. Yet I am very aware that I just got nipped. Again. Nice Fangs.
Cancer is not funny in and of itself. However between the disease and the treatment there is a lot of absurdity, comic horror, and bizarrely humbling experiences. Early on in the process I didn't think I would ever laugh again. Then there was a conversation with my best friend about what could be tattooed on reconstructed breasts in lieu of nipples. Let your imagination run for a minute... Wait for it...
Sunnyside up eggs? Pinwheels? Cupcakes? Planets? Eyeballs? Oh, the possibilities! And you have to laugh, staring down at a torso that looks like it belongs to Frankenstein's bride, because vanity now just seems silly. So why not Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?
And then there is my friend at the office who inspired (and received) this painting. She's a Lymphoma survivor, and one of those rare people who can be 100% compassionate and 100% sarcastic at exactly the same time. Its a gift. Because she's been there, she can make me laugh about things that would be completely offensive coming from anybody else. Showing me pictures of herself in a giant curly clown wig and suggesting that I borrow it for Thanksgiving dinner was just a start. We think up evil ways to play the "cancer card." And her ability to surreptitiously flick people the bird when they say something stupid about cancer or survivorship is legendary.
You just gotta laugh.
The phone call was terrible; Thursday afternoon at my office, a new client in the waiting room, and the sentence "The biopsy came back Invasive Ductal Carcinoma; you have cancer." There was an intensely tearful weekend, a strangely positive appointment with a surgeon, and then BOOM surgery. Waking up from surgery brought with it the appearance of a doctor I didn't know and a whole bunch of wrong information that left me spinning. A couple of morphine and Ativan laced weeks later, I met with my medical oncologist for the first time.
As I listened to the treatment plan, risks and benefits of chemo, eventuality of radiation, the need for Herceptin and hormone repression measures, scheduled implantation of a chemotherapy port, appointments for baseline CT's / Bone Scans / MRI's / Cardiac Tests, layers and layers of prescription drugs to counteract chemotherapy side effects, and the recommendation for a complete hysterectomy, I felt myself standing precariously on the edge. But then the oncologist used the phrase "potentially curable cancer." What? I think she said it four or five times before it sunk in and I took the first deep breath in weeks.
I dove. Head first. Dark Waters, indeed. I touched the bottom before I began to rise, but eventually I broke the surface and found my way to edge of a new country. If you are a survivor, you know about this country. Some people call it the "new normal," but I tend to experience it as a place akin to Alice's Wonderland. But that's another painting.
I wear a lot of hats in life, encompassing a variety of roles and relationships. I am becoming more comfortable with the whole "cancer survivor" hat, even finding silver linings in unexpected places --- like adding artist to my self identity. "Blogger" hadn't really appealed to me until I began getting requests to talk about what lies behind my art. So I'm going to give it a try. If you have gotten to this page, you have probably noticed from my paintings that I am quite frank about my experiences. Some of the images are stark and difficult to look at. To me, beautiful is not the same as pretty. "Beautiful" encompasses complexity that can include pain, tragedy, and darkness. Therefore there can be a strange beauty present in stark emotional and experiential truth. I am a seeker of beauty within pain, and of the beauty that grows out of pain. If you are too, we'll get along just fine.