Ever since I can remember, I enjoyed visual repetition. Even as a small child I enjoyed seeing stacks of the same thing all lined up, and would neaten things on store shelves because it pleased me to see them together.
In December 2015, after long and difficult journey to find a specialized surgeon to remove my chronic endometriosis I was finally going to start the pain-free life I’d always fantasized about. Very quickly the pelvic pain I’d had most of my adult life began to go, but for some reason I wasn’t getting my strength back. In September of 2016 I noticed a lump in my breast but disregarded it as a cyst or some other benign fluctuation. By December it was unavoidable and so I got an appointment for a mammogram which immediately showed a large, solid mass in the center of the breast. A biopsy revealed more tumors in the lymph nodes in the neighboring armpit and on February 14th I went in for a surgery to remove the breast and all of the lymph nodes in that area. It was stage 3 which is treatable. Chemo began in March, there were 8 rounds of three different kinds of chemo administered every 2 weeks for 4 months. This was followed by 25 daily radiation sessions. There is a risk that the cancer is already in other parts of my body waiting to reoccur, but the hope is that the chemo and radiation got them. For the next 10 years I’ll also be on medication to hopefully help prevent a reoccurrence.
Usually 6 months or so doesn’t seem like a lifetime…This is because I did not know what cancer treatment would feel like. Chemo stops cell division and that feels a lot like life stopping; it gets very hard to think clearly, memories are lost and new memories are nearly impossible to hang on to, and on top of this there’s intense, systemic physical pain and frequent, overwhelming nausea. Sorry if this sounds bad, there are a lot of things I’m not talking about here because I don’t want to scare anyone and of course everyone experiences these things differently and not everyone is given the same types of treatment.
There were many days when all I could do was lie down, even speaking would bring on overwhelming pain or nausea. Sometimes I would be overcome by sadness or fear and then tension would follow, and that tension would exacerbate the pain and nausea. With a mind dominated by a powerful fear of death and suffering I could not meditate because all I’d do was cry with fear and horror. While this was a good outlet, I had almost no strength and so if I surrendered to crying I would be giving up being able to walk up the stairs or eat a meal. So I needed another way to calm myself and since I’d always calmed myself as a child by drawing, I instinctively felt drawn to it. An ipad and apple pencil made it easier to draw from my sickbed and a simple little app called *Amaziograph was basic enough that even at my sickest I could enjoy the basic act of putting pretend ink to pretend paper.
What I am trying to communicate is what was made it so essential for me to draw this way, why it was all felt I could do, and how many times drawing saved me from falling into a deep depression in the midst of all the pain and nausea.
Despite my desire to create and soothe myself with art, I was also very angry at the bad luck of having spent decades dealing with pain from endometriosis only to get breast cancer just as I thought there was an end to it. The disgusting effects of the treatment, the frightening and painful experiences kept on coming... Hence my patterns contained a lot of profanity. I wanted to swear and I needed to swear. If I could have, I’d have been shouting those profanities from the rooftops! But I had no strength to raise my voice or even stomp around, so that left my drawings. I could write down an exclamation of disgust, carefully and lovingly so that seeing it gave me strength, reminded me that I have a voice and I am still alive. Seeing the repetition of my words and patterns calmed me, the inherent beauty of them made me feel in harmony with life again and able to rest.
When I was drawing these patterns and posting them online for my own edification I found that people gravitated towards them. Their enthusiasm and enjoyment of my drawing fueled my recovery, and there were many times when sharing laughter with strangers over another swearing pattern was the brightest moment of my day. People often asked when I’d be able to put these patterns on clothing and other things, so I made it my mission to recover as quickly as possible so that I could give people this. Now my brain and my strength are slowly returning enough for me to handle making stores and filling them with things covered in my patterns.
So far I’ve created an Etsy shop with my patterns getting printed on T-shirts, mugs, dresses, leggings, and bags. I also made a Spoonflower shop so that people could order the patterns by the yard on a variety of fabrics, or on wrapping or wallpaper. Finally I made a PAOM shop for button shirts, dresses, scarves and bags printed with my patterns. Setting up products with my patterns isn’t as natural or easy a thing for me to do as designing patterns, so I’ll be slowly adding to the stores as I figure out more, but I wanted to get it started so that everyone can enjoy these weird little missives from my fractured time. I never imagined that my little pattern drawings would mean anything to anyone but me, let alone resonate with so many people (with and without cancer) who just enjoy the cathartic nature of wearing subtle swearing patterns. Finding out how much joy they bring to strangers has been a completely unforeseen result of this terrible year and it continues to fuel my recovery.
If you’re looking for information about breast cancer I found breastcancer.org, and The American Cancer Society indispensable. Both websites are full of useful information and resources. I also joined a local support group which was tremendously helpful, even though I am cranky and only managed to attend twice, it was helpful and I’d recommend it to anyone. This journey is harrowing and alleviating even the smallest discomfort will make a huge difference.
(The software I use to draw these patterns is called Amaziograph and it works a lot like drawing on paper works; there are no layers, you can’t cut and paste things, you can mix colors but only as many fit in your palette and you can’t save them, there are no alignment tools or text tools, so you have to write things yourself and align by eye. Except for the amazing ability to see patterns tile in real time as they’re drawn, it is all very much like simply drawing in real life, which makes it that much more satisfying and enjoyable to tweak something elaborate out of it.)
I wrote a few more things about cancer:
- 10 Basic Chemo Survival Tips - Some things which helped me get through chemo and might be helpful to you.
- "Now you're done, right?" - How to Not Be a Dick to Your Friends Who Have Cancer.
- No, I Won't Drop My Fucking Anger, Thank You. - In praise of my fury, to those who wanted me to stop swearing and being upset about cancer.