The Breast Cancer Experience Quilts
While the journal quilts gave a “micro” day by day view, the Cancer Experience quilts provided the “macro” or larger picture as I articulated visually and verbally how I felt about the experience. I would usually start with an idea I wanted to express – It takes a village to heal a sick person – and then find fabric and words to express that idea.
Things I Love About This Life
This quilt is about some of the things I’d miss if I died. Perhaps a better way to say it is: what I love about life. For example,
I would miss simple foods. The pleasure of oatmeal in the morning, sweetened with maple syrup; fresh bread toasted and topped with a thin layer of marmite; a hot cup of black tea with just a dab of milk; pesto on pasta; fresh fruits and vegetables of any kind; and, of course, potatoes: baked, mashed roasted, as hashbrowns, or in a funeral potato bake. There’s nothing as satisfying to eat as potatoes.
It Takes a Village to Heal a Sick Person
I wanted to name some of the people who supported me through the illness, and to acknowledge what they did for me, so this quilt shows a community with its circles overlapping.
Anna Quindlen Quote
People would use words like, “strong,” “brave,” or “courageous” to describe my reaction to breast cancer, but this quote from Anna Quindlen summed up my day-to-day experience of going through this challenge:
"We are amazed, not by our own strength, but by the ability to slog through the storm, that looks like strength from the outside, and just feels like everyday when it’s happening to us."
There was nothing heroic about my daily struggle, however it looked to other people.
“Gratefully and expectantly, I ask for one day’s portion of Grace.” This has been my daily prayer for years, and it was particularly important to me through this experience. It was too scary to think about weeks or months, so I tried to focus on each day as it was happening.
Words of Encouragement
Many people sent me cards or wrote me letters and e-mails to express their support, and I found those words of encouragement helpful. Each one was, for me, a prayer for my well-being and return to health. I have written some of those messages on this quilt as a permanent reminder of the kindness and support of my community. Included on the quilt are also some of the ways I’ve coped, from watching Netflix movies to napping with my two cats.
Letter to Sue and Susan
Although I’m an avid reader and writer, and a dedicated English teacher, I could not write about my breast cancer experience as I was going through it. However, I wrote to two friends, Sue and Susan, who I have known for over 20 years, explaining what I was going through. We met in graduate school in the 1980's, and all three of us are writers.
We each contribute to a communal journal that we send to one to the other. This letter was my contribution to that journal. After I’d sent it off, I decided to inscribe the letter on a quilt as a record of my life at that time. The letter lists all the reasons I’m grateful for my current life.
Labeling My Fears
I literally made labels for this quilt which I attached to the background with barrel swivels so they could be easily turned. On one side, I wrote my fear, while on the other I answered the fear as wisely as I could. Here’s the writing on one label:
Front: I am afraid I’ll never recover my energy again
Back: After so many weeks of chemo, that’s a natural fear, especially these last two rounds of chemo with the accumulation of chemo and then the anemia. But nothing stays the same. You’ll regain your energy or you’ll sink further, but it won’t always be like this. Right now, the best thing to do is rest, eat well, get some exercise, keep sewing, visit with friends. Patience is the key.
I made this quilt late in the process because I was afraid to articulate my fears. On the one hand, writing out my fears got them out of my head, but on the other hand saying them out loud made them more real.
The background fabric for “Chemo” was dyed by my friend, Julie Nelson, who also wrote on the cloth. Her fabric represents my body at work, each part smoothly communicating with all the other parts. I dyed the red flame fabric; chemo feels like a fire, both burning and purifying the body. The colored beads show the cancer cells wandering around my body, and the white beads represent white blood cells. The smallest flame is filled only with white beads, with the hope that my body will eventually eliminate the cancer.
This quilt won overall first prize in the biennial Lilly “Oncology on Canvas” competition, as well as first prize in the mixed media category, and first prize by someone with cancer category. (http://www.lillyoncologyoncanvas.com). $12,000 in prize money has been donated in my name to two cancer focused charities.
“Chemo” was published in the 2012 Lilly Oncology on Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey, a book that is distributed to cancer centers across the country.