The above is page from one of my journals.
Given that current statistics suggest that about 1 in 8 women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, I’m betting that you know someone, if not many people, who have faced or are facing this challenge.
While I actually have some fairly complex and conflicting thoughts around the whole idea of breast cancer awareness month, three things have happened this month of October that I wanted to write about.
First I want to celebrate my beautiful friend Margot whom I got to visit with this week. She’s a survivor. And I’m celebrating how vibrant and beautiful and strong she is as she moves forward with her life, even as we talked about what new post-treatment medical decisions she has to make and how one of her friends is facing approaching death. This is what life is about. The nitty-gritty details we have to face, the hands we hold, the love we share.
The second thing that I want to talk about is a book I read and recommend – Hollis Sigler’s Breast Cancer Journal. It’s an older book, published in 1999. Hollis died of the disease in 2001. She was a strong feminist and breast cancer activist but underneath it all she was an artist who explored her journey with cancer through her art. She was also a Chicago-based artist and taught at the college my husband did so I feel a particular connection from that standpoint as well.
The book is a collection of 60 pieces of her art. The first third of the book is the story of not only how she created these works, but also what it took to get them on exhibit. She called her breast cancer journal “To Kiss the Spirits.” And she explained her process was to write in her diary creating a dialogue with herself about the events of her life. And then she would spontaneously draw, without making correction, trying to complete the whole piece in one sitting. She often used words in her works – sometimes inscriptions on the frames, and sometimes on the spacers inside between the art and the frame which made them less accessible as though only hinted at and not quite seen.
The final two-thirds of the book are images of 60 of these pieces of art, one per page. Besides each image is included the words she used on the frame and/or the spacers.
Although at the very beginning of her career she worked in a photo realist style of painting, by the time she was doing these works she was established as a painter in what is often called the faux-naïf style. I find her work very powerful and I highly recommend the book. At the very least I encourage you to google images of her art.
The third thing that I came across this month that I wanted to share on this topic was a bit of writing by Ursula K Le Guin. While it’s not specifically about breast cancer, I think it’s a brilliant expression of what we’re all called to see in each other, and to celebrate, this month and every month.
“My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.
That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.”
I wish for all of us beauty that is life-deep and that we see that in ourselves and in everyone. Always.
Deborah, A moving, interesting post. My family has a genetic mutation that makes breast cancer an all-too-common experience, for generations. I have always hated that the color pink has been usurped by “breast cancer awareness.” I was curious about whether that would change with my own diagnosis. It shifted slightly when a sister of a client of a cousin sent me a hot pink soft fleece pillowcase for my cold, bald head. I knew no one in Kansas, yet here came a wrapped package in the mail for me from Kansas. Love coming from unexpected places. “Life-deep beauty,” love it. And I’ve requested Hollis Sigler’s book from my library, thank you for that. Love and beauty and life in everyone, for everyone.
Your journey has touched me deeply Janet, and I’ve been grateful for the sharings you’ve offered on your blog. How wonderful that a love-filled gift made its way to you from Kansas at a time when a lovely surprise was in order. And as you say, love and beauty and life for all!
A great post. It’s so important that the depth of breast cancer not be reduced to pink. On the other hand, symbols are so important and pink is just that. I like that I can wear my pink ribbon and others nod to me in agreement. While I’ve not experienced breast cancer personally, all too many of my friends have. Awareness is powerful, I think. So long as it’s not reductive.
Looking forward to reading Hollis Sigler.
Awareness is powerful, I think. So long as it’s not reductive.” That’s a very helpful perspective Linda – and a perfect way to hold this.
Cancer is such an awful disease …. several of my friends have been through breast and other forms of cancer – some have survived, some haven’t. And those who have survived have come out the other side stronger and with something extra. Their beauty is definitely life deep – what a wonderful expression.
I’m so embracing that expression of beaauty being life deep.
Just off the top of my head I can think of at least three women I know that had breast cancer. I’m not very close with one of them, but the other two have been such an inspiration for me – they didn’t let cancer stop them from following their dreams and doing good in the world.
There are so many bright shiny people who are blessings to us individually and collectively.
Just learned this summer of two more friends being diagnosed. I’ve lost count of the total numbers. Once again Deborah your writing moves me to want to learn and do more. Thank you.
The numbers are staggering aren’t they Kelly? And each represents a constellation of affected lives.
I think this is a very important post, Deborah.
Cancer is certainly about more than pink ribbons. My friend Gayle Sulik wrote the NY Times best seller Pink Ribbon Blues to bring attention to what cancer really looks like, and to raise awareness about how funding is used and misused (not enough for research and treatment).
Thank you so much for writing about your friend, Holis Sigler’s book, and including Ursula LeGuin’s quote.
It can be such a dance trying to find the balance – gathering the momentum of the collective in meaningful ways without losing our own voices, our own stories. I’ve read Gayle Sulik’s book and I think it presents a very perspective and should be required reading for everyone.