CAPELLI D' ANGELLI GRANT

HOW MY ART HELPED ME DEAL WITH MY CANCER

Copyright 2012, By Janet Tarjan Erl

            This essay is a modified version of my grant essay for the Capelli d’Angelli Foundation Grant for Women Artists.

I was a budding artist at an early age of five, so naturally I excelled at art throughout most of my life.  The sum of all these years of artistic endeavors (I was born in 1957) has allowed me to create an enormous body of art. Though being an artist has been extraordinary, it has also caused my life journey to be rugged and exposed.

I wish I could say that my art was the sole source of my recovery, but, even though it was critical for my cancer recovery, it was also the main reason I got cancer.  I know this may not be what people want to hear, but to understand how my art helped me heal from my cancer, you need to read through the twists and turns of this essay.

I would not be here today, nearly seven years after the onset of my cancer, had I not had the good fortune and the courage to see what I had become as an artist.  Quite simply at the time I got the cancer, I hated myself.  I was depressed and felt I was a failure.  Yet, for many years prior to that point I had fondled the glory of being a successful, professional artist.  Then that success began to fade.  The fade was so subtle in the beginning, but after five years it became a struggle to keep income coming in.  Creating the art was fulfilling but dealing with the art sharks, gallery shams, and the frequent rejections were a struggle. I had always been confident until that downward turning point, but once I tripped and fell, I didn’t stop falling until after I plummeted over a great precipice into the blackness of hopelessness and despair, and then came the cancer.

At that time I didn’t realize that having hopelessness and despair before and during the cancer were common emotions for most cancer patients.  In his book Cancer as a Turning Point, doctor Lawrence LeShan, a noted cancer psychiatrist, summarized that 70% of his cancer patients had hopelessness and despair before they got their cancer.  I fit that profile perfectly.  In his first ten years of practice all of LeShan’s cancer patients died.  Thereafter, he changed his traditional clinical therapy methods and started treating his patients by helping them to find their happiness and have a reason to live by getting them to pursue their most desired dreams – usually ones they had long abandoned.  Since adopting that new strategy 50% of his patients are still living healthy, happy lives, and these were all terminal patients with little or no chance of survival.

Though I was unaware of it at the time, I was deeply depressed prior to the cancer.   I was also unaware of the destructive nature of despair.  Aside from the obvious fact that I didn’t like it, despair is physically destructive when experienced continually over extended periods.  Emotions, such as unhappiness or despair, are experienced not only as thoughts but also as physical, chemical reactions called peptides.  Some of these peptides are good for our body, and some are not. Unfortunately, despair peptides are not the type of peptides that rejuvenate our cells.  They degrade our cells into being weaker proteins.  In addition to degrading our cells and proteins, they also have negative effects on the proper functioning of our systems, especially our immune system.  Though the mechanism that causes immune failure is unknown, it is clear that persistent negative thoughts upset the delicate balance of chemicals the body needs to nurture and maintain itself in a healthy state.

Obviously, I did not benefit from a good state of mind or the nurturing peptides that go with it; on the contrary, I was addicted to my sense of failure, and it took getting the cancer to turn events – to change my state of mind because as of this writing I’m one of the ones who defies the odds. The aggressive state of my cancer plus the fact that it had spread to my lymph nodes left me with around a two to three percent chance of living five years or more. My dismal outlook worsened when I found out that the chemotherapy I would receive would likely cause permanent neuropathy, which is the loss of feeling - usually in hands, feet, and sometimes equilibrium. The combination of a bleak chance of living combined with the threat of getting neuropathy flipped my switch because when I found out I had a fifty percent chance of getting neuropathy, and that I might never pursue my two favorite passions – art and hiking, I really bottomed out. I hike to explore so that I can immerse myself in nature, get inspired by it, and share those inspirations through my art.  If I couldn’t pursue my two favorite passions, I reasoned that life wasn’t worth living.  It felt as though someone was going to cut off my hands and feet, toss me over Niagra Falls, and ask me to be a normal happy person. 

At this level of despair, I was ready to end it all - to blackout from life.  Why do the chemo and the radiation if my life would be pointless should I be lucky enough to survive.  It was a very dark place to dwell, but damn if there wasn't a pinpoint of light that shone in that dark abyss. It happened when I went for a gloomy walk among the abundant trees of Rocky Point, and I asked the trees, "What is your purpose in life?" You know what they whispered back? "We live to exist." What a concept! It was so simple, so beautiful, and so difficult to apply to myself, but it is what changed everything. It made me realize why I was having so much difficulty wanting to live and do the treatments.  I wasn’t measuring up to my own expectations of what I thought I should be.  I spent most of my life determined to be an artist - not just a human being, and when I didn't measure up to the image I felt I should be, I belittled myself.  All my life and my future was planned around being an artist.  To cast away my lifelong ambition was an enormous task, but that is what I had to do to take the first step towards wanting to live and fight the disease.  I had to accept that it was okay not to be an artist.

Accepting that meant I had to give up my identity as an artist, but it did not mean I had to give up creating art, and I didn’t.  I did a lot of art during the seven months of treatments.  Some of the art I did was symbolic of things I wanted to happen.  For instance, I did not want to get neuropathy, so I drew a drawing symbolizing my hands being healthy, beautiful, and protected.  I drew images of my cancer cells being destroyed.  I drew images of things that were blockages or painful experiences so that I could express how much they hurt me.  I also drew peaceful images that were satisfying or represented the things I wanted in my life. 

Of all the art I did, however, the most profound type I did was visualizing.  I chose the form of visualizing where in my mind I would look at myself.   It is very much like painting only it is done in the mind.  Initially I created a house that represented me, and I would enter it and turn on a pipe that represented my immune system while I turned off a pipe that represented the cancer.  I had amazing results from this method because I had astounding comebacks with my white count. I read about this concept in the book “Love, Medicine, and Miracles” written by Bernie Siegel.

After many weeks of daily radiation treatments my white blood cell count dropped to near neutropenic (very low).  At that point I started the house and pipe visualizing and miraculously my white count had doubled.  The following week my white count increased again.  The doctors were unwilling to give me an immune booster because radiating the pelvis while the cells are dividing – the means by which they create more white blood cells - is a bit like grinding gears because radiation kills dividing cells.   So to avoid this disaster, I asked all my bones that weren't being irradiated to create my needed white blood cells.

This was the starting point for my visualization program that I still do each day.  As time went on my house got different rooms each representing the different systems of the human body – my body.  As I opened the doors to each room I would visualize that system and have light energy go through that system.  I’d also ask it to do a good job, or if it was just prior to a treatment, I’d ask the healthy cells of that system, for instance if it was my urinary system, to be extraordinarily resilient to the destructive forces of the chemo, but for all cancer cells to be completely susceptible to the chemo. 

Another special room I created was my Antineuropathy Room.  In this room I visualized a special machine that I put my hands, feet, and central nervous system into.  Once in this machine, light force energy would flow through these special body parts giving them extraordinary resilience, health, and love.  I never did get neuropathy. 

I finished the treatments with amazing health and grace and surprised and pleased my doctors.  I learned to really love each system and to always thank them/us. I now have a profound realization of how incredible we humans are, and that love, thanks, and belief can make miracles happen.  My recovery also took a lot of love, care, and medicine from a lot of other people, but I had to decide that their giving was what I wanted.

During my treatments, I believe that creating my art in both the physical form and the visualizing form were very tangible intentions of what I wanted to have happen, and I believe that is why those things happened.   Art is very powerful.  The cancer enlightened me and freed me as a human and as an artist, and how I dealt with healing from the cancer was my creative and artistic way.  In summary, my art was both oppressor and liberator.

I hope my insights can be of help to others with cancer and that they will use mind art and physical art to wrestle the tiger into submission.

Oh, and if you were wondering whether I still create art? You bet! Check out my website and see how much beauty Nature has blessed me with seeing and interpreting through my paintings.

All Images and Content ©2000 - present Copyright Janet Tarjan Erl