Visual methodologies for cancer research: exploring patient experiences through an arts for health group
Thirteen cancer patients took part in an arts-for-health initiative where they produced artwork that reflects their experiences. This involved writing poems, making drawings, paintings and sculptures, collating images and writing a narrative about which parts of their cancer journey do these creative pieces represent. These pieces were then collated into posters about receiving a cancer diagnosis, going through treatment and life after discharge. We are using these posters in public engagement events to start a dialogue with members of the public about cancer survivorship. We have found that art offers a unique starting point in engagement because healthcare professionals, relatives and members of the public initially engage with the aesthetic element of the art and then dwell into message it conveys thus creating a strong emotional reaction that triggers self-reflection as well as a very wide range of conversations.
Testimonials from participants
Therapy in creating – using art to address the emotional impact of cancer
By Adriana Ford
Getting cancer is not something I ever thought much about. In my mid-thirties, near perfect health, little family history, healthy lifestyle. I was focused on my career, relationships, travel plans, my hobbies, and what I want to do next in my life. Yet in July 2016 I got thrown headfirst into the cancer world. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was grade 2 (quite aggressive), large (a whopping 10cm), and had spread to a lot of my lymph nodes. It was stage 3c, one stage before the incurable stage.
It was a whirlwind – hospital appointments galore, tests, new terminology, information. I started chemotherapy nine days after diagnosis. I had 8 rounds of chemo every 3 weeks, and injected myself 40 times in my own belly. I had a mastectomy and temporary implant reconstruction. I had my implant inflated. I had radiotherapy. I had my implant deflated and an urgent surgery on my mastectomy scar. And then I had an LD flap reconstruction, where they took a piece of my back muscle, threaded it under my armpit onto my chest to recreate my breast – with a bit of skin too. I actually have a bit of my back as my boob, which I think is pretty cool. I’m also on hormone therapy and in temporary menopause. I’ve no idea if I can have children. Bone infusions are next up on my list of new experiences. And my chances of getting metastatic breast cancer in five years is an unsavoury 30-40%.
It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that this all takes an emotional toll, as well as a physical one. I am pretty resilient – positive and defiant is probably how my friends would describe me. Yet now I am coming out the other side of the ‘big stuff’, I find myself an emotional yoyo. Preparation for the emotional aftermath didn’t help – it came anyway. The tears. ‘The Fear’. The great paradox of the meaning and meaninglessness of life. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m finding it a little tough.
Yet out of bad can come good, and for me, one of those goods is my rediscovery of art and my creativity. It had always been there, hidden away, neglected as I pursued a career in sciences and never made time for it. Then I was invited to be part of a cancer arts project for Cardiff University by Sofia Vougioukalou, and it was just the carrot I needed. With the help of a wonderful arts mentor, Catherine Lamont, I created my first ever painting where I truly expressed myself. The whole experience was cathartic, I cried and smiled as my feelings and experiences started appearing on the canvas in front of me.
Even if it ended right there with that one painting, I’d be grateful for this outlet. But it’s taken a little life of its own, and inspired me to set up the Breast Cancer Art Project, an online platform for those who have or had breast cancer to express themselves through the power of art. The project is in its infancy, yet already we have some incredible images and writing coming in from others who have sought some solace through art. It is open to art in all its forms, and for any ability. What I really hope for now is for it to grow, and help others with breast cancer the way the Cardiff University project helped me.