CancerLand Bookshelf with Annette Bennington McElhiney

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Title: Althea Re-Balances Her Life
ISBN: 9781479132997

Title: Dancing Joyfully, With or Without NED
ISBN: 9781479344611

Author: Annette Bennington McElhiney
Both published by the author, 2012 | $14.99 US each

Today I found my Nikon in the bottom of the hallway closet. There it was, peeking half-in, half-out of its padded black bag, forgotten and more than a bit dusty after months of neglect. The truth is I haven’t taken a picture since last October. But now the calendar reads mid-March, so the timing is perfect: I pull the drained battery out of the camera body, plug it in the wall for a full recharge and feel a slight tingle of creative excitement.

With spring right around the corner, it’s almost time to take some new flower pictures.

After all, I spotted a purple crocus on my afternoon walk yesterday, which means that the daffodils are ready to bloom. Could the forsythia and the tulips be too far behind? I’ve come to know the seasonal growth cycle so well; it’s second nature to me now. You see, I started taking pictures of flowers shortly after my cancer treatment ended more than a decade ago, and once spring arrives- and March turns into April, and April into May – here’s one thing I know for sure: my digital camera will emerge from winter hibernation to become my new best friend all over again.

I use a digital camera and hunt for colorful spring flowers to tune into the artist in me, while ovarian cancer survivor Annette Bennington McElhiney paints an alter ego she has named Althea, a word that comes from the Greek and means “self-healer.” We have different cancers and use different media to express ourselves, but clearly we have both found a healing outlet that works wonderfully well for us.

Annette describes her creative process:

I discovered that my chosen medium was acrylic and my emphasis was on bright colors, thick paint, texture and use of mixed media like yarn, sequins, twigs, feathers and fabric…I could paint for eight hours without eating or drinking and be totally absorbed…The right brain side of me-that side which has spunk or the Althea side – began to emerge and my paint brush saved me.

In her two publications, Annette describes the subject of her paintings, her alter ego named Althea, in many colorful ways: she’s spunky, shocking, crazy, courageous, up front, full of verve, forever resilient, a just-watch-me-do-it kind of woman. Annette, a former nurse and retired English professor, taps into Althea’s amazing energy to make peace with her situation. Her alter ego helps Annette manage fears of recurrence and gain perspective. Painting continues to be a way for Annette to heal from cancer treatment and ultimately her work inspires others to recover as well.

I couldn’t help but smile and nod my head in agreement as I read Annette’s words:

…Each of us has to decide what in life renews our spirit and gives us courage and hope…What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another; I try to listen to Althea the self-healer who says ‘find a way to integrate your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves and help heal yourself.’ In other words, see life as beautiful each and every day,…live totally in the present, not in the past or the future.

I discovered Annette’s writing and art as I searched online for recent publications by cancer survivors. And when I spotted her email address, I immediately acted on my urge to virtually connect with a fellow cancer survivor/artist living hundreds of miles away. I’m so glad I did! Now I can share our “conversation” with all of you.

A Virtual Interview with Annette Bennington McElhiney, PhD

Alysa: On the cover of Althea Re-Balances Her Life, there’s a painting of a faceless woman walking a tightrope over a raging river. In what ways does this image connect with your experiences as a woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer?

Annette: Althea, my alter ego, is faceless because when I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt stripped of my individuality – “my face.” I felt more like the face of cancer than Annette the woman. My crazy alter ego Althea is walking a tightrope over either a raging river or an abyss because I felt totally unbalanced: physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but could only express those feelings by painting her. After chemo, I had severe neuropathy in my feet that made me feel unsteady and I often tripped. Prior to diagnosis, I felt confident and secure, but after diagnosis I was traumatized and felt like a vulnerable and needy woman who couldn’t find her emotional or psychological footing. Hence, I felt as if Althea and I were walking that tightrope over the raging, constantly changing river or abyss – the confusing, frightening terrain that lies beneath most cancer survivors.

Alysa: How does writing and painting contribute to your recovery from treatment for ovarian cancer?

Annette: Initially after I was diagnosed and treated, I was so fatigued that I couldn’t read, write or paint; so I spent lots of time trying to make sense of why all this had happened to me. I felt sorry for myself. Whenever I saw a commercial on TV showing someone celebrating a 90th birthday party, I got quiet because I didn’t want people to know how angry and sad I really was. My husband always asked me where I went when I became silent. After the first six months, I tried to write a short memoir sharing my anger, envy and fears about the future. But, after reading it, I could see that I sounded like a “pity pot.”

Eight months later, I sought a second opinion from a gynecologist/oncologist about continuing on maintenance chemotherapy. He said that it didn’t matter what I did because I would die of the disease anyway. I got so angry that I went home and painted the face of a devil with fire and smoke coming out his ears and nostrils. That was therapeutic for me and as a result, I sought yet another opinion and found a wonderful supportive doctor to work with.

As I got stronger, I painted for longer periods of time and found myself painting faceless women with no hands or feet in precarious situations because that was how I felt. Later, I realized that my paintings were speaking for me, but no one understood that but me. So I created a narrative to go with some of the paintings. Now, after almost five years, I have come to depend on my painting as an outlet. As I’ve become stronger physically, emotionally, and psychologically, I am deliberately trying to explore other emotions and paint those as well. This process takes me completely out of myself and reduces any stress, anger, or envy that may still be lingering. For me, creativity is in itself a healing meditation.

Alysa: You write about the many healing benefits of connecting with fellow cancer survivors in a support group. What is your biggest challenge in relating to people who are not members of what you call the “Cancer Club?”

Annette: For me, and some of my fellow cancer survivors, the need to be with peers is essential. Some of my oldest and dearest friends, and even some family members, couldn’t, and still can’t, understand why I have developed an additional network of friends who are members of the “Cancer Club.” I do understand that friends, family, and caretakers want to help; consequently, they may feel rejected if, and when, I choose to have lunch with another survivor. I always try to explain to them that I value their friendships and support, but that when I am with them, I deliberately try not to talk about my disease because I don’t want to bore them or make them feel uncomfortable. With other cancer survivors, I can let down my guard since we often speak the same language. If I’m “freaking out” because I am awaiting test results, they know exactly how I feel because they do the same thing. In my paintings, particularly in the first booklet, I hoped that creating the humorous tart Althea, who was always “hanging” from something, would convey the concept of my insecurity, but not in a way that would seem blaming to caretakers or other people outside of the “Cancer Club.”

Alysa: In Dancing Joyfully with or without NED, there’s a reference to the fact that “thanks to the Cheryl Shackleford Foundation for Ovarian Cancer” a copy of your booklet is “given free of charge to every Colorado woman receiving chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.” What sort of feedback have you received from ladies who have read your words and viewed your artwork?

Annette: For several years I have had a booth at a yearly local race for ovarian cancer where I sell paintings (giving all the profits to the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance). Some of the women who have received the booklet recognize me from the photo on the back cover and come up to me and tell me that they identify so much with what I wrote. In fact, the husband of a woman who died from uterine cancer said his wife kept the book by her chair all during her chemo treatments. Some women will just come up to me and share a hug.

I have been fortunate so far to be in remission; I am so grateful for my good fortune that writing and selling the books and paintings and giving all the profits to ovarian cancer research is my way of giving back. If I can make others feel less alone and help them laugh, then I feel such gratification. Doing so also gives my life direction and purpose so that I can push forward; there is still so much left for me to do.

Alysa: On the pages of both your booklets, along with color illustrations of your paintings, there are helpful tips and practical advice for ladies recovering from treatment for ovarian cancer. Are there any other lessons learned that you’d like to share with your Oncolink audience of cancer survivors, caregivers and clinicians?

Annette: Because I spend several hours every day researching ovarian cancer, many of the tips and advice I give seem to be for that cancer only. But many of the same tips and advice work for all cancer survivors. In order for me to manage my disease, I need a concrete plan (laid out in Dancing Joyfully), a network, and an outlet for my emotions.

I’ve found that while some people may read my booklets and view my art, even though they understand and identify with my experiences, they choose completely different plans, networks and outlets for themselves. If I could underscore one thing, I would say explore lots of different avenues, reject those you dislike, and embrace those you feel good about. The most important thing is to find what plan, connections and outlets work for you, try to be positive and live in the moment, and be your own best advocate!

Alysa: Here’s one of my favorite quotes from your writing: “…Painting Althea makes me happy, heals me, and takes my mind off myself; in sharing her, I am trying to do the same for other women with ovarian cancer – to illustrate that we can find a balance only if we do not take ourselves too seriously.” What did you mean by that? How on a day-to-day basis can cancer survivors actually do this?

Annette: When I was first diagnosed, I was literally struck dumb! I simply couldn’t understand why this had happened to me. Yet cancer does not discriminate; it strikes without warning. I’d always had a sense of humor, but for the longest time after diagnosis I took everything so seriously that life was just full of drabness and sorrow. Finally, when I began painting, my feelings began to change. I had an outlet. I realized I was often guilty of being a “drama queen” and I could suddenly see myself as a rather ridiculous figure.

The painting “Flying without a Net” was inspired by a poster advertising an arts festival where a slightly nutty woman was shown joyfully swinging on a trapeze. At that time, I was going off maintenance therapy and was terrified of doing so. As I looked at the poster, I realized I could identify with flying on a trapeze, but not with the woman’s feelings of joy. Instead I was feeling insecure since I had to give up my own safety net – the maintenance drug. So in the painting I portrayed Althea as hanging, almost like a rag doll, with absolutely no support beneath her.

However, taking yourself less seriously on a day-to-day basis isn’t easy. Just this week, on March 10 at the meeting of the Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology in LA, Dr. Premal Thacker made the following statement about spirituality and its possible role in coping with cancer. She said that one’s spirituality is defined as “an individual’s sense of peace, purpose and connection to others, and beliefs about the meaning of life” and may be an important component leading to a better outcome in a survivor’s fight against cancer. I couldn’t agree more!

Before diagnosis, I wondered why I was on this earth, what the meaning of life was, and what was really important. I painted randomly and rather mechanically. After being diagnosed with cancer all that changed. Suddenly, I knew that facing this challenge defined both life and my purpose in it which is to share my research, experiences, and emotions with others through painting, writing and speaking, seriously or humorously.

As a result, painting and advocacy have become my passions. Oddly enough, the very day I heard about Thacker’s work, I received the report of my 4 year and 8 month CT/PET scan that was clean. With a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, there is only a 25-30 % chance of surviving five years and I firmly believe that my painting and role as a cancer advocate have helped me improve those odds. That same day, Alysa, I received your e-mail giving me yet another opportunity to share all over again. I sincerely thank you for that!

Alysa: On behalf of Oncolink, Annette, thank you for all you do!

To view more of Annette’s artwork online, please visit her pages on Fine Art America or imagekind.

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