In December 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hearing the words “You have cancer” is probably one of the scariest things you’ll ever experience. I’ve always felt a need to express myself creatively and this poem I wrote describes how I felt when I heard those three little words.
I hear the words, “It’s cancer”
My mind goes blank.
I can’t speak, I can’t think.
I am dazed and numbed
by the discord of my emotions.
Fear creeps into my soul and grasps my heart
With an icy hand and a vice like grip.
Dread climbs from my toes
Clawing at my sinews until it reaches the tip of my head
where it explodes in a frigid torrent of terror.
Sweat trickles down between my shoulder blades
and puddles in the small of my back
My breath restricts as panic rises from
The deep pit of my churning stomach
and a moan ascends from the boiling maelstrom below.
in a frenzied dance
to the hum drum of my heartbeat
and the whoosh of the blood pounding my ears.
My knees start to tremble
and I stand outside my body
detached and severed
Looking in at the turbulent furor
which threatens to engulf my existence.
I want to shout, I want to run
But I am rooted to the spot
cold and paralysed
Stuck at this juncture with the heinous cackle
of this vile disease echoing in my every thought.
The first thought that entered my head was “chemotherapy” and the only experience I had to base my thoughts of this was what I had seen in the movies, and that wasn’t very informative or accurate. I imagined myself, pale, bald, too weak to move or eat, throwing up for months on end; the thought petrified me.
In January 2018, I had a single mastectomy, followed by a lymph node clearance two weeks later, as they found that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.
I’m a photographer and being unable to lift my camera had a big effect on my morale. It took a while to recover from two surgeries and so I expressed myself by writing a diary during this time. Thankfully I have the support of my family and friends and the photographic community rallied around me to show how much they cared.
I did have chemotherapy, but I was glad to find that I wasn’t as ill as I imagined. I had no idea that treatment took place in cycles and that although there were times that I felt awful, (especially in the first week of a three week chemo cycle) I gradually improved through the second week, and was even better during the third week. I did experience some nausea and vomiting, but it was well controlled by anti-sickness medication. The biggest thing the affected me was fatigue and the change in taste. I did have days that I was very down, and I was amazed at how angry I felt when I couldn’t taste anything. I’ve never been so close to throwing a plate of food across the room and smashing it against the wall! I lost every hair on my body, but the anticipation of being bald, was far worse than actually being bald. I cut my hair short to be in control and when it started falling out, I cut it shorter and shorter until eventually I shaved it off completely. I did purchase a wig, but I didn’t like wearing it, so preferred to wear scarves and hats.
A big moment in accepting who I was and what I looked like occurred when I was away at a photography show. I had left my wig at home, so was planning on wearing some flowers over my chemo hat for the evening, black tie awards meal. My friends suggested that I embrace the baldness and go without my scarf that night. I decided to do just that and went along with my shiny baldhead on display with a tiara perched on top of it. The singer for the evening is a friend of mine and the first song he sang that evening was “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman”. I sat there with tears rolling down my cheeks listening to the words, “I am brave, I am bruised, this is who I’m meant to be…” and I found a new liking for myself, just as I am. I can’t change me, but I can accept me as I am along with everything that happened to me, so I might as well embrace it and make the most of it! This was a huge defining moment in my life, and one I’ll never forget.
My treatment continued and my routine became Monday morning blood tests, followed by reflexology with Sarah, one of the Penny Brohn UK team at GenesisCare in Maidstone, and then chemo on a Tuesday. I’d then spend a few days in bed, mostly sleeping, I then moved to spending my days on the sofa until I started feeling stronger about a week later. My strength improved during the next couple of weeks, and I made sure I had something to look forward to each time to help me through the bad days. The toughest bit was getting through the weekend when I felt at my strongest, knowing I would start the cycle again in a few days and feel so weak again. The reflexology gave me some time to relax and address problems like insomnia, and was a little something to look forward to each cycle.
Because chemotherapy leads to a compromised immune system, I was advised not to have contact with babies and young children, which had a huge impact on what I could achieve in my photography studio. Once I was sufficiently healed from surgery, I picked up my camera again and turned to the medium I love to express the emotions I was feeling at the time, as they were varied and often unexpected. I did have days where I hit rock bottom, but I also had fun and laughs. I then started to photograph other people dealing with cancer and this eventually became a body of work I called “The Faces of Cancer”. I selected twenty images to form a panel which was submitted to the Master Photographers Association, and then also the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers and awarded a Fellowship with both. A fellowship is the highest photography qualification you can achieve with these professional bodies, and is only awarded to around 1% of photographers, so I was delighted to achieve it. I was amazed when the body of work then went on to be awarded the Best Fellowship Panel of 2018 at the prestigious Master Photographers awards. Sadly, Scott, who is featured in one of my images, died the day after the awards, and I dedicated my win to him. He was very happy to be able to help others by being part of my photography.
The photographs I took have now been published in a book as part of “The Monster Series” of books about cancer. “Facing the Monster” is a compilation of fifty images, both self-portraits and photos of others, along with my diary and a short piece written by each person I photographed. I was delighted to have Benedict Cumberbatch write the foreword to the book.
A year ago, I felt like I was on this never ending path of treatment, but I made it through the worst. I don’t think that cancer will ever fully leave my thoughts, and it certainly changed me and those who love me, but a lot of positive has come from it too. I know that not everyone makes it, and I have lost friends to this horrid disease, but everyone I’ve encountered, even those with a terminal diagnosis, agree that there is some good to be found if you look for it.
If you’re just starting this journey, then I’d say that it is a rollercoaster, but my advice is to roll with the bad, enjoy the good and take it a day at a time. Be kind to yourself, allow yourself to feel sad and angry, scream and shout if you want to, but also make plans to do something fun during your stronger weeks. I found that both the memories of what I’d done and the anticipation of the next event sustained me during the worst days.
I had eight cycles of chemotherapy, followed by 15 cycles of radiotherapy and I still have Herceptin every three weeks, but I’m upbeat and positive.
If you’d like to see my photography, you can visit www.photographybyimelda.co.uk and if you’d like to purchase a copy of the book, the large deluxe version is available at www.themonster-series.com/books and the smaller version from several online and high street booksellers.
Blog by Imelda Bell