Title: Live or Die

This drawing is symbolic of the choice to live or die. These were the choices I struggled with when I found out I had advanced uterine cancer and needed to do chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Having advanced cancer was a terrifying experience, especially when I found out that fewer than 10% of cancer patients with my stage of cancer survived beyond five years. Think of it this way, if you have a ten chamber revolver loaded with nine bullets, would you want to play Russian roulette?
I couldn't help but wonder if the pain, the sickness, and the long term damage the treatments would cause were even worth doing when my odds of living a prolonged life were so small - in fact, most patients die within three years. It's a terrible place to be. It's like being in a river gorge with steep sides when a grizzly bear comes running towards you. You can't climb up the cliff - it's too steep, and the water is raging towards a deadly waterfall. Stay or swim, you feel doomed either way. That's what cancer feels like - a lose lose situation where you are forced to gamble.
Under such circumstances choosing to live was the most difficult choice I faced. It didn't help that I had long been on a journey of self perceived failure which culminated into the biggest failure yet - getting cancer. It was hard to muster the will to live when my life was so screwed up, and having cancer gave me the perfect opportunity to let go. But living, in spite of all its failings, was so hard to let go of. Having cancer created the greatest challenge I ever faced. I had to choose whether to live or die and to fight or give up.
Though having cancer, at first, felt like being in the talons of a predator, in time, it transformed into being a great liberator because it freed me from the chains of my oppressive ego. For nearly all my adult life my identity and self worth revolved around being a successful artist. When I wasn't succeeding, I was failing, and the failures were adding up. It's no wonder I got cancer. It was a wake up call to warn me of the swampy muck I was sinking in.
Paring down my ego was not an easy task, however, and it wasn't until I learned that the treatments often cause severe damage to hands and feet - a problem known as neuropathy – a problem that might prevent me from ever painting again – that I realized how much my life revolved around my art and my ego. The ensuing depression was inevitable. I couldn’t help wonder what I would be if I wasn't an artist. I couldn't imagine being anything else because I spent my whole life becoming and being an artist. At that point, when I took stock of my life and tallied all my failures, calculated my odds of dying from cancer, and realized the two things I loved most - exploring and creating art - might only be memories, I couldn't help but linger in the darkest, suicidal place I've ever been.
As dark as that void was my life didn’t end there. In fact the darkness faded as new hope appeared. I realized and accepted that there were many things I could do and enjoy. I could write or teach. I could do photography or computer art. I could design houses or alternative energy systems. I realized there were so many interesting things I could do, I actually got excited thinking I could pursue new careers. What initially felt like the sad end of my life ended up becoming the beginning of my new life, a life that was no longer judged by what I did - a life that had value by just being alive. It felt so good to be free to be just a human being without labels and identifiers that my desire to live was kindled. That was the point where I chose to fight for my life.
The drawing is a symbolic story about choosing to live or die as I experienced it.

Janet Tarjan Erl

P.S. I did not get neuropathy. I drew drawings showing my hands healing. I visualized everyday on being in an antineuropathy machine that healed my nervous systems. I prayed everyday for the gift to feel my hands and feet, and I expressed my thanks for being alive. In retrospect, my cancer brought my soul, mind, and body back together to live in peace and harmony.

Year: ©2007

Original Medium: Pencil

Size: Height 19.0 in x Length 16.0 in

Location:  Artist's Collection


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