Courage is at the root of a doodled plant

How Cancer Changed My Art, Part One

In June 2021, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. After abdominal surgery and a lengthy hospital stay (I’d also had an intussuscepted section of small intestine that had to be removed), I had four weeks of recovery time prior to starting chemotherapy. During that time, I could barely walk and needed a lot of help getting up and managing my daily living. Needless to say, making art wasn’t at the top of my list of things to do.

However, after I started chemotherapy, I discovered that my perspective about art-making was changed. Instead of being focused on the expectation of producing something wonderful or monumental, I learned to focus on what made me happy in the moment.

This article is part of a healing strategy for me. Since my early retirement in 2016, art and creativity have been a major part of my life. The threat of losing my ability to create due to chemotherapy was, well, an eye-opening moment to say the least. But before I get to that point, I need to start with some background.

Since I tend to be verbose no matter how much editing I do, I’ve broken the story into two parts: Part One (this part) is about what I experienced immediately after my cancer diagnoses and Part Two is about my renewed return to creativity.

I started chemo on August 2 with a combination of drugs known as “CAPOX” with additional drugs that were intended to suppress the CAPOX side effects. Up until then I’d avoided drugs, even over-the-counter drugs unless they were absolutely needed, so this inflow of toxic chemicals produced drastic results. During the time I took all these pills, my body responded in a bad way, my digestive system shut down and I did nothing but sleep.

After two weeks of this, I was back in the hospital again, this time to get antibiotics, fluids, and potassium adjustments from the lack of food and dehydration I was experiencing. The doctors thought I also could’ve had enteritis, but no one suggested it was from the chemo or the surgery, even though that was the elephant in the living room!

Cancer is just a word for a change in how the body operates. The change is a mutation of the cell’s instructions. We have no control over what our cells are doing, so cancer patients can only elect to ingest chemicals that destroy cells, harming both the good and the bad, to reduce the spread of cancerous cells.

It’s a terrible choice to make, because ultimately you don’t know if it will work on the cancer cells even while it’s destroying the healthy cells. And you see the results every day because your hair falls out, your digestive system doesn’t work right, you get dizzy, your fingernails change color and you have a host of other side effects, things healthy cells control. You don’t see cancer cells dying but you definitely see the healthy cells die. It makes you think you’re slowly killing yourself with the chemo.

But ultimately, it is your choice as to whether or not to take chemotherapy. I seriously considered not taking it so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the toxicity. Then I thought about my family and the pain and suffering they’d go through, perhaps years of it, if I didn’t do something to control the cancer and chose to try chemo.

Note: this was a choice, I always had the option to refuse it and still do. Some people talk like they have no choice, but that’s not true, especially in the U.S. You can tell your doctor “no” and they are required to respect that.

I make that point because I hate when people say they’re “fighting” cancer, as if it’s a battle brought on them by somebody else. It isn’t a battle because there’s no fighting involved. Either the body’s systems work properly or they don’t. Cells that have mutated into cancer don’t work properly and the body doesn’t know how to handle it.

Rather than a battle, I want to support my healthy cells so that my immune, lymphatic and digestive systems can do their jobs. It seems wrong to ingest toxic chemicals to kill both healthy and mutated cells, but that’s how chemotherapy works. I didn’t want to take it, but it was the choice I made. No one forced me into it.

I also say this because at the time I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I felt like the oncologists and my family were pressuring me into something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of months of feeling victimized. And that’s a hidden psychological side effect of cancer that my doctor never told me about.

When I was in the hospital, right after surgery, the oncologists explained the chemotherapy I would be going through and its potential side effects. I got so depressed after hearing this that I considered suicide. I was in constant pain and there seemed to be no hope of ever getting my life back to where it was before the cancer diagnoses. The drugs that were given to me made me feel out of sorts and gave me intense headaches. I felt like I had absolutely no control over anything – not my body, not the medical procedures, and even not over my own thoughts.

That’s when I learned that my biggest fear isn’t death.

I discovered that my biggest fear is being incapable of living life the way I was used to. Like not being able to run because I’d lost the use of my feet, or not being able to create art because I’d lost the use of my hands. I’ve done both for over 40 years and couldn’t imagine life any differently!

Yes, losing hand and foot function was one of the side effects that could happen on chemotherapy. The doctors assured me that it didn’t happen to everyone, and even the people who had it usually didn’t have severe problems. Most people experienced some pain or discomfort and a lot of skin sloughing, but few people lost complete use of their limbs.

However, during my first chemo treatment, my lower arms and hands went completely numb. I couldn’t breathe. I knew it was happening, I was going to lose the use of my hands!

I panicked. The nurses had to give me oxygen and a host of other injections. They said I was having anxiety attacks, that my heart and lungs were operating normally and I needed to stop panicking. The numbness would wear off, they said, but first I had to calm down.

Yeah, easier said than done. While the feeling came back in my arms and legs within the hour, the anxiety attacks lasted for days. I felt like my worst nightmare was coming to life.

The chemo side effects I’m referring to is a condition called neuropathy. Up to 60% of chemotherapy patients experience it to some degree, and many recover. It can be quite painful.

It can also be permanent.

Continued in Part Two

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