Bowl of Lemons

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oil on panel / 36 x 36 inches

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what this journey—this detour in my life—meant to me. As an artist I decided to tell my story through painting. I visualized each process of the emotional and physical challenges I encountered. It became obvious to me—life was handing me a big bowl of lemons and it was up to me to determine what I was going to do with it. So I painted it.

detour: 10 paintings descriptive of a battle with breast cancer

Highs and Lows

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oil on panel / 40 x 30 inches

I was on an emotional roller coaster for months while waiting for the staging of my cancer—the stage describes the extent of the cancer in the body. The roller coaster continued throughout all the procedures I was experiencing. One minute I would be fine, the next I would be in the depths of despair wondering how I would ever survive this disease. I worked hard at trying to keep all the cancer stuff under control or at least keep it contained in a way that I could deal with. Sometimes it worked, mostly it didn’t. The lemons in this painting represent those emotions—those under control are at the top in a vase, but most of them are down rolling around loose on the floor.

Under the Knife

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oil on panel / 18 x 21 inches

When I was in my 20s I was looking through a fashion magazine and turned a page to find a black and white photograph of a woman’s torso. She had had a bi-lateral (double) mastectomy. I read the accompanying article about breast cancer and thought I would rather die than have that happen to me. It was that sobering and has been a lingering fear for the past 40 years. Fast forward to 2013. Now I am faced with that choice—do nothing and die or get treatment and live. I chose treatment.

Cocktails

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oil on panel / 16 x 40 inches

Chemotherapy (chemo) seems to be the treatment that conjures up the most fear for those facing it. I was no exception. When my oncologist told me I needed chemo, and “yes your hair will fall out” tears started rolling down my face and they wouldn’t stop. After I pulled myself together I started reading all the information I could find about surviving chemo and tried to prepare for what was to come—sleepless nights, loss of appetite, loss of energy, and loss of motivation plus a slew of other physical side effects. After three months I was through it—bald, hungry, and ready to move on to the next challenge. “Cocktails” is a common term for chemo and is descriptive of the mixes of various drugs used to combat the cancer unique for each person. There are six different cocktail glasses for the six different bags of drugs I received—four to fight the side effects I would be experiencing and two big bags for the hard core drugs that actually kill the cancer cells.

Zested

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oil on panel / 12 x 12 inches

Two weeks after my first chemo infusion my hair started to fall out. At first it was just a few strands, but within two days it was coming out in clumps. It was my worst nightmare and what I dreaded most about having cancer. This is what was visible to the world and marked me as a cancer victim. Up until that point I was able to keep things pretty much “under wraps.” Not many people knew of my experience and that is how I wanted it. Now with a bald head there was no more hiding it. From what I read and from what the medical staff said “that it was only hair and it would grow back” didn’t make me feel any better.

Hot Spot

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oil on panel / 16 x 40 inches

About a month after finishing chemo I started the next phase of treatment—radiation. I was scheduled for 33 sessions, Mondays through Fridays (weekends off). For me, this was the easiest part of the journey. It didn’t hurt except for getting the three tattoos on my torso so the technicians could line up the external beam radiation machine accurately each time I got zapped. On the painting the small purple dots are my tattoos and the numbers show the angle the machine would stop at to administer the radiation. The lemons are cut in half and lined up with the insides exposed to represent the seemingly never ending days of treatments and the vulnerability I felt laying on that table day after day. I know I was one of the lucky ones—my side effects were minimal compared to what many other patients were experiencing.

Bitter Pills to Swallow

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oil on panel / 18 x 21 inches

One of the treatments I continue to receive is hormone therapy. I will be taking a pill everyday for about five years. It is supposed to keep the cancer from coming back. My case manager told me not to be fooled  this is just another name for chemo – only the dose is much smaller. Like regular chemo, there are variations in the drugs and dosage sizes and each patient has to go through a trial and error period to find out which medication works for them. The first ”hormone” made me sick to my stomach. The second and third ones gave me a lot of bone pain in my joints making it difficult to move. Everything hurt. Then eureka! The fourth drug worked! Four months later I was feeling good and life was beginning to get back to normal. Even though the pills have a very bitter taste, it is a small price to pay.

Side Effects...

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oil on panel / 36 x 36 inches

…may include very serious (possibly fatal) strokes, blood clots in the lungs/legs, and cancer of the uterus, hot flashes, diarrhea, persistent nausea/vomiting, leg cramps, muscle aches, tingling/weakness in the arms/legs, hair loss, vision changes (e. g., blurred/double vision) eye pain, unusual eye movements, sudden severe headaches, easy bruising/bleeding, mental/mood changes (such as depression, anxiety) swelling of hands/ankles/feet, unusual tiredness, stomach/abdominal pain, dark urine, yellowing eyes/skin, signs of infection (e. g., fever, persistent sore throat), rash, itching/swelling (especially of the face/tongue/throat), severe dizziness, trouble breathing, joint/bone pain, unusual sweating, trouble sleeping, bone fractures, drowsiness, loss of coordination, or shaking (tremor).
These were the side effects printed on the warning labels of the medications I was taking. They were a heavy burden.

Facsimile

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oil on panel / 18 x 21 inches

With the cancer gone, it was time to start putting me back together. This painting is representative of reconstructive surgery. It shows two lemons on a simple gray and white print fabric. The end of one lemon has been removed and part of a tangerine has been attached with duct tape. And yes, I was temporarily taped back together after my surgery, but at least my doctor didn’t use duct tape. After two surgeries and time for healing and I am almost as good as new. Although things will never be quite the same, I’m happy to be getting off this detour and heading back to a more normal life.

Pink Lemonade

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oil on panel / 18 x 21 inches

Done! I made it through this detour and am back on the road again. Although the medical processes continue with check-ups, scans and medications I am ready to sit back, put my feet up and have a great big glass of cool, refreshing, life-affirming pink lemonade.

These paintings are available as a book, Detour, and may be ordered from MagCloud.

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