I have been working within the NHS for twenty years and have concentrated primarily on improving the general public’s understanding of cancer. This involves providing: information, training, education, risk reduction as well as getting more people to participate in the three cancer screening programmes – breast, bowel and cervical cancer. Early symptom recognition is very important to our work so bringing about behaviour change and changing attitudes to cancer is essential in everything we do.
Following a nursing career and a master’s degree in environmental epidemiology and health policy, I assumed I was well equipped to work on any aspect of the cancer programme. However I discovered it was much more difficult than I thought. It was extremely challenging to talk about cancer at all; people wept, people fled from talks, my colleague at the desk next me had breast cancer and I upset her every time I mentioned the word from an objective perspective. It was not until I heard artist and cancer patient Michele Angelo Petrone talk about and show his emotional response to his cancer journey that I realised how far I was from the emotional trauma of those in the population with a cancer experience. So I changed my way of working and found every way possible to acknowledge the emotional impact and worked on how to establish a dialogue that allowed me to hold people so that we could talk.
One of the most powerful things that Michele said was: “My journey has two intertwined threads – elements which mirror each other as exactly as the two chains of the double helix. One is the medical history. The physical injury, the illness… The parallel thread is my emotional response. The disbelief, the grief, the doubt, the flung out, the anger, the banter, the bargaining, the accepting… “
Therefore having clear images of how the physical impacts on the emotional allowed me to present to people what they were feeling and they in turn were able to share, discuss and paint their own feelings. We were finally able to begin a dialogue around the enormous and diverse subject which is cancer. It can be healed, cured, lived with, avoided; you can have episodes of cancer and still have a good quality of life, and yes, it is a reality that you have to deal with those who die from cancer as well. Dying is part of all our lives and is not an individual failure to die of cancer. The advances in the treatment and care of cancer have been remarkable over the past twenty years, and this progress will continue, its success giving hope and solace to many.
Part of Brighton Science Festival, A Cancer Landscape is not just an amazing exhibition, it has a partnership of terrific people: Lauren from ONCA, Richard and Mark from Macmillan, Mark, Eva W and Eva C from Brighton Therapy Centre, The MAP Foundation, Meghan from Wellcome Images and Catherine and myself from Sussex Community Health NHS Trust. A series of art workshops for people affected by cancer held in October, November and December has provided us with new images not seen before. There will be information available on a range of cancers, screening and risk reduction and all the exhibition staff are being trained to be supportive of those viewing the exhibition.
With regard to the Wellcome and MAP Foundation, when Michele died in 2007 the MAP Foundation inherited Michele’s archive pertaining to his cancer work, sketch books, all previous information on workshops with patients, evaluations of exhibitions which toured all over Brighton and Hove and East Sussex and images relating to his own cancer journey. This whole archive of over 100 sketchbooks is now with the Wellcome archive waiting to be catalogued and digitalised.
A Cancer Landscape with all our partners presents a very exciting coming together of a rich, and valued body of work from passionate professionals, presented with compassion for everyone to see and add to creating a living landscape.