Journaling Cancer in Words and Images
by Harriet Claire Wadeson, PhD, LCSW, ATR-BC, HLM
Cancer imposed its own special kind of helplessness as I was cut open and parts were either removed or irradiated and blasted with chemicals that destroyed cells and interfered with my physiological functioning. People turn to a number of outlets under this kind of duress – religion, meditation, music. For me, I needed to do something, to be active to oppose my resignation to what was imposed upon me. I needed to assert my personhood as I passively underwent frightening and debilitating procedures. Writing and making art were my saviors in times of trouble or pain in the past, so it was only natural for me to turn to them to help me through cancer.
I began a journal the day I was diagnosed. I am not sure what I had in mind, but I think it was to anchor myself during the heavy buffeting for which I knew I was headed. What I have found is that had I not written about it, I would have forgotten much of what I experienced. So, unintentionally, the journal has been a kind of record keeping as well.
Writing and painting – even if about the pain in your current reality – lifts you beyond that reality into a world of your own creation.
I took my paints with me to the hospital when I had surgery, my first treatment shortly after I was diagnosed, but I was unable to use them the few days I was there. I started painting soon after coming home, however, beginning with plants and flowers friends brought me. My first cancer picture was of my hand taped with the tube infusing me with chemicals and the pole with the beeping chemo machine behind it, which I painted in my first chemotherapy session.
I was faithful to writing in my journal and tracing my cancer journey in images throughout my treatment. I found these two modalities to be very different experiences, not only in how I was expressing myself, but also in what I was expressing. In telling my story in these two different modes of expression simultaneously, I found that each enhanced the other.
The art I created was relatively quick, made with simple materials. Most of the time I was working on it, I was too depleted for more extended projects. The same is true of the writing. So much of the material is raw – spontaneous journal entries and pictures made when I was feeling very ill. In a way, however, these spontaneous expressions of what was happening to me – and my resultant feelings – are perhaps more genuine than refined writing and art making would be.
I think creative expression is very important for those living in dread of a possibly fatal illness and undergoing harsh, debilitating medical treatment. Writing and painting – even if about the pain in your current reality – lifts you beyond that reality into a world of your own creation.
There is a strange paradox here. Although the focus is on what may be suffering, perhaps even the reliving of an excruciating experience, that focus is enveloped by another focus, which is the creative experience itself. While writing about nausea from chemotherapy, for example, I was also selecting the best words to describe it. Sometimes I could find satisfaction and even pleasure in pairing just the right words. This same sort of creative involvement was even more intense in making art. Instead of words, I would be selecting and composing images and enjoying the sensual pleasures of manipulating materials with the stroke of a paintbrush or of applying glossy satin ribbons. So, although writing or painting about nausea, I was enjoying my own creative activity. Afterward, I would look at my creation and smile. Yes, I would think, that is what it is like.
What’s more, creative self-expression can affirm your own special personhood, what in you is strong and unique. You are not simply a cipher in an unending march of patients into the operating room, the radiology department, the chemotherapy suite. You are expressing your own individual response to the tsunami that has wrecked your life and the flood that is drowning so much of it.
I feel very fortunate that both writing and making art were already old friends when the tsunami hit. I did not have to look for them; they were already by my side to help keep me afloat through the ebbs and flows of the strong tides of cancer that washed over me.
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Uterine cancer survivor Harriet Claire Wadeson is a pioneer in art therapy, currently directing the Art Therapy Certificate Program at Northwestern University. This article is adapted from her book Journaling Cancer in Words and Images: Caught in the Clutch of the Crab, courtesy of Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd., Springfield, IL.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.