Month: October 2014

Happy Cancerversary Baby

Got you on my mi-i-ind …

Those of you who grew up in Australia in the 1970s will get that reference, and for everyone else, I present the fabulousness that is Little River Band:

OK, now I’ve gotten that out of my system, I want to talk about the fact that it’s two years today since I was told I had breast cancer. You may be forgiven for being a little confused, given that today is the 5th of October but since I started this blog I’ve been banging on about how I was diagnosed on the 12th October. Turns out I got my dates mixed up. You may wonder how I could be confused about such a defining moment in my life. I suspect it’s a combination of having never been good with remembering dates, chemo brain and the 12th sticking in my head because that was the day that the surgeon who chopped off my breast and cut out 16 of my lymph nodes told me that he thought my cancer was terminal (turns out it wasn’t, but you can imagine why that date would stick). Anyway, I was really happy to find out that the 5th is my actual cancerversary, because it means that I am 7 whole days closer to still being alive at the five-year mark, and if I’m still alive at the five-year mark, I have the same chance of dying as the rest of the population. Yay!! Check me out finding the positive in the most horrendously negative situation. Fuck you cancer!

So, here I am, 730 days on. I’m not dead, and as far as I know, I’m not dying. 730 days ago, I had no idea whether or not I’d be alive today. 730 days ago I thought everything had been taken away from me. 730 days ago I wondered what I had done to deserve this, but 729 days ago I realised that I’d done absolutely nothing, because my cancer, like most cancer, was sporadic. Sporadic means no family history, no major risk factors, no exposure. As my oncologist told me, shit happens. I can’t tell you how much better that made me feel.

So much has happened over the past 730 days. First there was sheer terror, then pain and loss, then sickness, anger and grief. Then happiness re-emerged and hope showed up, at first just a tiny glimmer caught on the edges of my periphery. Hope is still fleeting, it comes and goes as it pleases; some days there’s no hint of it and I am cold and angry and curled over myself into a hard ball. Other times it comes, seemingly from nowhere and bathes me in its warm light, and I bask in it like a cat in the sun, turning my face to it and stretching my body in languid joy.

731 days tomorrow, and counting. Looking forward, but always knowing that the present is a gift.

breast cancer awareness month

Common Thread

breast cancer awareness month

Alyson Baker is an artist who was diagnosed five years ago with breast cancer. Alyson’s contemporary works are metaphorical images that depict the experience of coping with breast cancer. They include sewing, knitting and needle felting as well as watercolour painting – as a feminine response to research with other women who have experienced mastectomy and reconstruction for breast cancer.  Alyson hopes that her work will create some form of therapy for  women affected by breast cancer and increase awareness within the wider community. You can read more about Alyson and her work on her website.

The common thread is that we all struggle. Mine was losing my breast to cancer. Not knowing what to expect was like being thrown into the deep end. I still feel grief, as the thought that part of me is gone haunts me.

When I tested positive for breast cancer, my greatest fear had been realised. A subsequent visit to the surgeon confirmed my fear; I was going to lose my left breast. I was devastated.

At the time I was studying Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art and the theme of breast cancer started to seep through everything I did. Unbeknown to me it became a form of therapy – a way of coping emotionally.

For the past five years after my mastectomy for breast cancer I have explored the emotional struggle. My art works are metaphorical images of this struggle. It has taken the form of paintings, drawings, knitting, felting, crochet, sewing, video performance art and audio. Along the way I learned of other women’s struggles; my artwork also tells a story of their struggle and the emotional upheaval that breast cancer has on a person’s life.

The frustration of not being able to make a knitted breast on my first attempt resembled the frustration I and other women had experienced. The knitted mistake hints at the emotional upheaval – of falling apart, becoming unravelled and turned inside. Trying desperately to recreate what was once there.

alyson 1

I created a knitted breast modelled on my own breast size. It was important for me to come to this resolution; it reflects my own acceptance of breast cancer, mastectomy, breast reconstruction and ongoing monitoring.

Alyson 2

The lone breast represented the body part lying in a laboratory. It was needle felted, a process of poking and prodding, similar to the way a patient feels poked and prodded.

Alyson 3

Alyson 3A

Alyson 3B

When the doctor told me that my breast was in a laboratory it set me in a spin; part of me was 100 kilometres away sitting on a cold stainless steel tray. I also found an article about a woman who asked for her amputated breast so that she could bury it – as a way of finding some sort of closure. This inspired my work Mastectomy Memory a performance art using textile art, disolvable paper and poetry.

Alyson 4

“Mastectomy Memories Verse” 2012
Extracts from Poetry written by Alyson Baker during Drawing Investigations

All through the night
And all through the day
A ghost walks with me
Like a shadow on my way

A past never to remain
A moment in time
In an instant erased
A concept of mine

How easy it is to reflect
On memories of old
A diversion to confronting
Emotions that unfold

How is it possible?
How can it be?

That my lover can no longer kiss
This place that I miss

What sense does it make
From knotted pieces of string
Metaphorically told
In poetic rhyming

A ceremony yet not candle lit
A cup empty where a breast would sit

The seasons come and go
And yet I am still here today
And through the haze
Creativity will raise

So hide in the shadow
Or dance in the light
Shrouded in darkness
Or dipped in sunlight

Where there is life
There will be hope

Now my greatest fear now goes beyond any expectation that it may return. I have a daughter and a family connection to breast cancer. Mum, Grandma and I all have had breast cancer; my Grandma passed away at 41 leaving three children. Mum and I were lucky enough to survive. My husband’s mum was not so lucky, she passed away in her 40s leaving Tom, Andrew and Ann without a mother. As a parent I would do anything that I could to spare my own child from this horrible disease.

My future work will be explored during my Honours in 2015 where I highlight the innovative research being funded through the National Breast Cancer Foundation which does not seem to have met with much media attention. Nanotechnology presents the best hope. Ultimately through this research treatment will be individualised, more effective and less invasive. The aim is for zero deaths from Breast Cancer by 2030. To help achieve this goal please donate to NBCF.

What Cancer Looks Like

breast cancer awareness month

Welcome to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, where breasts are actually optional. Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing this blog with some other writers, but I’m going to kick off the month with a post of my own, because after all, it is my blog and therefore all about moi.

This is what someone who has cancer but doesn’t yet know it looks like:

before cancer

September 2012, on holiday at Noosa. The week before I’d had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy which had come back as ‘atypical cells’ which the GP told me usually meant normal cells which were squashed in the process of taking the sample. I was sent for another ultrasound and biopsy three days after this photo was taken. No, they weren’t normal cells that got squashed, they were high-grade aggressive cancer cells.

This is what someone who has had a mastectomy looks like:

during cancer 1

Yep, pretty much exactly the same as the before cancer shot. By this stage my right breast and all of the lymph nodes from my right armpit have been removed, and I am waiting five weeks for the surgical site to heal before starting chemotherapy. I was so terrified for those five weeks. Terrified at the thought of having to have chemo and terrified at the thought of not having it soon enough. Oh and in case you’re wondering, no, people with cancer aren’t forced to wear the same shirt every day like some sort of uniform.

This is what chemotherapy looks like:

during chemo 3

Pretty unimpressive, isn’t it? The green sign attached to the bag on the right says ‘Neulasta’. That was put there each time to remind the nurse to send me home with the vial and syringe which I had to inject 24 hours after chemo. Without the Neulasta, I wouldn’t have been able to have the chemo regime I did. One word typed on a green sign = reason I am alive today.

This is what someone who is having chemotherapy looks like:

during chemo 2

I took this on Christmas Day 2012, to get a photo of the gorgeous earrings Dave bought for me. I thought I looked pretty good at the time, but looking at this photo now, I can see that I looked pretty dreadful. The terrible blackness around my eyes, the mottled brown pattern on my cheeks and jawline, the puffiness of my face and of course the baldness of my head were all testament to the poison that was fortnightly being pumped into my poor, beleaguered body.

This is what someone who is having radiation therapy looks like:

during radiation

Woo hoo, look at that hair! I felt sheer delight when the peach fuzz started appearing on my head. Under that shirt and scarf there were extensive third degree burns which had to be attended to multiple times daily, but I had hair!!

And this is what someone who is 1 year and 361 days on from diagnosis looks like:

julie finger

This one’s for you, cancer.