This is the ‘blog’; a ‘sketchbook’ full of words and images, conventional and visual language intermingling to form a ‘voice’ that echoes and conveys other voices that are never usually raised in public.
The sketchbook will grow along with the Drawing Women’s Cancer project. It will build on narratives of my encounters, on my thoughts, my feelings, my successes and my failures, and words will become but vehicles for visual notes, sketches, details and finished works. You can follow me, if you care to, through the journey that is but a gentle walk in comparison to that travelled by the most important people in this project as a whole… the patients, the women who give of their own patience, their time and their trust, and without whom none of this could be done.
Dr Jac Saorsa, October 2012
SURVIVING… (my visit, very early on in the process, when I first become fully aware of the world I was entering into…)
I have never been so unsure of what to expect, so I try to expect nothing. I find my way to the venue, a very plush hotel where the décor seems to struggle between the personal and the impersonal, business and pleasure. The event, the first South East Wales Gynaecological Oncology Centre Survivorship Event, is shrouded in the personal, powerfully so, and as I enter the room I feel as though I am being drawn into the folds. Nevertheless, as I look around at the surprisingly large crowd of people I am out of place, I am an outsider, and it is as if I have gatecrashed the party of a small yet very exclusive club.
Everybody is friendly towards me, they are very welcoming but they know the rules. ‘You cannot talk to the ladies today. Only the nurses and the charity people’. The cancer specialist nurse smiles sympathetically, ‘I’m sorry, but you don’t have the CRB check through’.
The enthusiasm is almost tangible in the handshakes, the smiles, the offers of tea, cakes, but what am I doing here? How would these ladies who have suffered, and are suffering, and these people who are caring for the suffering, receive an artist? How will they respond to what I am trying to do?
The disease and the person. What becomes and/or remains the difference? What do outsiders, like me, see first? It becomes impossible to control the speed of the questions that run through my head as my gaze searches the room, trying to decide whether she has cancer, whether she is a nurse, whether she is a carer and for whom? Who are the patients, the nurses, the surgeons, the charity workers? They are all people with some connection to cancer, to gynaecological cancer, and they are all here for one thing, to celebrate survivorship. They are so many strangers, but they are together, and with togetherness comes the freedom and security with which they are able to talk about something that, outside that room, is never so giving. Cancer is no longer the elephant in the room. I feel I am.
I sit beside an elderly lady. She seems so very kind, so very interested. I know she thinks I am a fellow sufferer and I do suffer in my sense of guilt at not correcting her. I do not, cannot say, ‘but I am only an artist!’ not to the elderly lady, so refined, so beautiful. Her companion; a Zambian cleric. He is in contact, she tells me, with the wife of the Zambian President. Cancer care in Zambia; ladies with cancer so far away from this room with the view over the city, but in her eyes, in her heart, they are so very close. Survivorship has the power to unite and the beautiful lady and her quiet, smiling companion speak so very loudly in its service. Yet, she seems so very sad behind her eyes, wounded. She has no time for the earnest complementary therapies speaker. Although it never shows in her expression of serenity her slight and frail body stiffens. She turns aside and she smiles at me, but she will not listen.
Rachel, forty-four, recovering from vulval cancer. The beautiful lady is listening now but almost flinching as the force of Rachel’s passion makes hailstones of her words. Rachel is very active, a purposeful campaigner, she began fundraising from her hospital bed. She talks eloquently, ardently, about the ‘speakable’, while she refers more quietly, to the ‘unspeakable’. Everybody hears her though. Everybody understands. The beautiful lady understands and turns again to smile at me, warmly.
All refer to the ‘cancer journey’.
Jenny, the hypnotherapist has become almost evangelical in her personal survivorship and now she exhorts ‘thought management process’. This is not counselling she says, rather it is simply a way to take the ‘negative molecules’ out of our memories. Her own cancer – double breast and endometrial became for her a ‘positive’. It made her realise why she is here, what she is here to do. Now she goes to people and people come to her. She does all this for free.
The Macmillan worker. Welfare Advisor. She is here to help too. When your life falls apart. When you have worries about your job, your mortgage, your loss of earnings, the cost of your medicines. She is here to advise and to help, ‘There are so many ways to help.’ Help is a permanent resident in cancer’s domain; it is always around the corner on the journey.
Nicky tells us all about the Butterfly House because, on the journey, ‘We need somewhere to go’. And moreover, ‘We have the architects plans.’
I talk with nurses and I feel, with almost painful relief, the scepticism turning slowly to interest, to acceptance but I still feel a little like an outsider, or perhaps more a trespasser. I tell a nurse about who I am, what I am doing, my history, my experience, my counselling training, my interest in anatomy, and, ‘I had a hysterectomy’. She begins to understand, she says ‘its so exciting’.
I talk with a surgeon. He is a consummate professional and so accommodating. “Raise awareness’ he tells me, ‘do you know that people are just not aware?’ I do.
Another nurse. ‘Is it just cancer?’ she asks. ‘I know nurses who…lost children, childbirth, drug addiction, all sorts of things, all about women. Is it just cancer?”
It is becoming overwhelming. Things are moving fast.
‘You work with Amanda? She told us/called me/emailed me. It seems so exciting. With your background you seem perfect. It’s about the person. It would be so good to have something to show the ladies that isn’t so terrifying.’
The ladies are queuing for tea donated by Twinings and there are home-made cupcakes. There are carers, husbands, friends. I am not sure what to do or who to be, it was hard to be myself.
Jenny said, ‘Nobody talks about death.’
Somebody said, ‘Nobody talks about down there.’
I should have stayed longer. I should have looked over the charity tables. But I wasn’t able to stand in the queue; I wasn’t able to talk to any of the ladies. I hadn’t got the CRB check through.
I am left with so many feelings and they will turn into memories but the memories will be positive, productive, and devoid of ‘negative molecules’.