by Andrea McIntyre
Arranging the contents of my house for online auction last summer was humid, sticky work to be followed by the twin labors of selling and moving. But I did it joyfully because it was the next step toward attending art school in proximity to family members I’d missed desperately for years. This dramatic mid-life change of career is a transition that has been years in the making. The prospect of being closer to loved ones while attending an acclaimed art college is, for me, an astonishing reality built through several years of daring to realize my dreams despite a plethora of doubts and practical misgivings.
And so, having completed the last item grouping before the auction photography session, I entered the hallway tired but happy, heading for a cool shower. Mopping at a ticklish trail of sweat as I walked, I felt an unwelcome lump in my breast. In the nine months since, I have experienced two surgeries, two of six chemotherapy sessions, and I am slated for a month of daily radiation treatments after that. I finished packing the day after my first surgery. Two months later, after the second surgery, I followed my clothes, kitchen, and art supplies to land, temporarily, in a chilly cabin on the coast of Nova Scotia where I began painting with beeswax.
Cancer is a difficult companion and the current treatment protocol is worse, except that it offers the possibility to become cancer-free. But for me, the entire experience has also been a vehicle of marvelous discoveries and I am documenting this challenging journey artistically as I move through the process.
Here I acknowledge the reality of an aggressive cancer tumor in my breast on the cellular level. The tumor, at 10 o’clock, is greedy for glucose and demands excess blood to grow. Healthier cells float around the tumor on a ground of white: I imagine the energy of life suffusing the space between subatomic particles, encouraging healthier cells to continue in their living and dying. A frond of sweet fern points to a pair of sister cells happily dividing, as they should, at five o’clock.
At Thanksgiving my cousin handed me a bouquet of sweet fern for a relaxing bath. She harvested the fern here where I am living during chemotherapy. These small gestures of caring make all the difference. I feel the love of others in my body like heat radiating from rocks on a summer afternoon. Not until I had cancer did I begin to feel the love of others moving through my body. It’s a marvelous experience.
Six months later traces of the dye were injected into my breast to help identify the sentinel lymph nodes related to the tumor. This blue, bright-like-Smurfs at first, fades through turquoise to a pale aqua-green. In “Methylene Blue Dye,” green dots represent the blessings I feel I am receiving in the form of loving support, professional excellence, and kindness from medical people, and help in many forms as my needs present.
The zigzag red line traces a beautifully executed incision along the edge of the areola which, I think, would have faded away to invisibility in time. Unfortunately, a second incision marred this surgical perfection, but I retain sensation and that is more valuable to me than appearances, so I shall likely forgo plastic surgery in the future, even if I am assured there would be little risk.
I imagine this view of “Inside Out” from inside my body, looking outward through the breast: some cells contain the methylene blue dye, others do not. Bits of dissolvable stitches show; scale may not be consistent, but the largess of small healthy cells housing my psyche make me grateful for the mystery of incarnation . . . really, the fact that we exist, and can contemplate the mystery that subatomic particles collide without contact and produce the illusion of a tangible material world is astonishing to me.
For seven days of each 21-day chemotherapy cycle I inject myself with Grastofil, which encourages my body to produce white blood cells. This medicine produces an exquisite “bone pain” which I experience as if it were fireworks exploding from my pelvis and my spine. To my surprise, this does not make me cranky with others, and thank heavens, because the rest is hard enough on all of us without me becoming cantankerous as well.
“Grastofil Writhe” is a mermaid-like creature, a personification of the pain. I relate to it like one of Guillermo del Toro’s monsters, or a fierce form of a Buddhist Tara; a being which is neither benevolent nor malicious, whose presence affects me, and who is affected by my conscious observation.
I am boundlessly grateful and encouraged by the support and care I receive from my two adult sons and my partner. I’ve painted the first layers in “We’re All in It Together,” and my family will collaborate with me on this piece, painting whatever they like onto this large canvas. I hope to make more collaborative works in coming months.
About the author:
Guest blogger and artist Andrea McIntyre (www.facebook.com/AndreaMfineart) lives and paints in Nova Scotia, Canada. After 30 years of professional listening in her work as a Spiritual Care Professional and as a Registered Social Worker, Andrea has committed herself to artistic expression which is, for her, the culmination of all her studies, professional experience, and personal spiritual practice; it is a way of life and an ongoing communion with the divine as she experiences it in her daily life.