I was dutifully, patiently serving my time – the third year in a life sentence of ovarian cancer. I had been a good sport, keeping up appearances, helping out with the other inmates. My ever-faithful chauffer husband and I had become accustomed to living life on the edge, keeping my hospital bag ready for the frequent trips which are customary in a crisis lifestyle.
The warden (a.k.a. my extraordinary Gyn-Onc) had originally advised us that with good behavior, I had a 70% chance of survival. In retrospect, I now realize what she forgot to mention: If I did survive, there would only be 70% of me left. Indeed, I had won a revolving ticket to the operating room where I excelled in donating body parts to cancer. The chemotherapy drugs had lost their luster and stubborn tumors were winning the battle. High-risk debulking had become the most reliable solution while we searched for a drug that could shrink the tumors.
Meanwhile, I continued my career as a successful artist, working on paintings between hospital visits and chemo infusions. I noticed that when people heard the word cancer, they automatically started to think of me as dead. Fearing this would put a damper on my art career, I subscribed to membership in Cancer Anonymous. (“Hi. My name is Fran and I’m addicted to chemo”.) I mean, why concern the galleries representing my work? I was not dead. I was a professional pro-active patient dedicated to trench warfare, and committed to the cause. Oil painting had become my most valuable tool in the effort to survive. Art was my nirvana, my meditation, my sanity and my soul. I had no intention of giving up.
One fine day in the midst of all the insanity, a gallery called me requesting a commission for one of their clients. Okay, great!! What were the specifics of this new painting? Sitting up straight in my recliner and trying desperately to sound lucid, I grabbed a pencil and paper to take notes . . . uh-huh, a still life. No problem. Something similar to one of my paintings they had seen in the gallery. Ok, wonderful. What size do they need? Uh-huh. Wait. Are you sure? What were those measurements again? Eight feet high and five feet wide? Excuse me, but . . . I never heard of a still life that large. Okay, great!
The Can-Do Kid hung up the phone and slumped back in my chair. Drawing upon my standard survival tactics, I grabbed a huge chunk of chocolate and practiced deep breathing exercises in an effort to get my head around this new dilemma. This would be a very exciting painting, but how in the dickens could I seriously accept this project? The chemotherapy wasn’t working, and tumors had invaded my colon to the point of serious danger. I was headed for another dastardly slice-and-dice, and who knew what I’d wake up with (or without), and if I’d even wake up at all. Then my doc would begin another series of chemo infusions with a drug we had not yet tried. Would my body tolerate those side-effects?
As I pondered this new situation, my first impulse was to reject the commission and concentrate on smaller works for the gallery. But when I began to visualize the new painting, I knew it was something I really wanted to do. It was just too exciting to pass up, and my Fran-Plan survival method was to keep getting up and placing one foot in front of the other. Keep going no matter what. There was no way I was going to let this exciting opportunity slide by, just because of cancer. No way.
I ordered the canvas to be made, and began planning the composition. I’ll admit that when I saw the huge canvas carried into my studio, I nearly passed out. There is nothing so frightening as a blank canvas. My reputation – and the gallery’s reputation – depended on me creating something wonderful on that blank canvas. I began work on the painting, concentrating on the tallest part requiring me to stand on a ladder, and then the bottom of the canvas where I sat crouched on the floor. I went into surgery planning to finish the mid section when I had recovered enough to sit up for brief periods at a time.
Recovering in my hospital room during the long, dark days after surgery, I hammered the morphine button and concentrated on the unfinished painting waiting in my studio. I occupied my time, and my mind by painting stroke by stroke.
As planned, I was able to finish the painting, grateful to have this mental distraction from pain and the complications of chemo and its side effects. You can imagine the great personal victory when the painting was delivered to the clients, who were very happy with their new artwork and overflowing with compliments. I was so happy I didn’t spoil the mood by concerning them with my personal trials and trauma. Their new painting meant much more to me than it did to them!
My statistics are interesting: The short version is four auto-immune diseases and 24 trips to the operating table. But I frequently say that my life is a fairy tale. Two years after I finished that artwork, the painting that almost didn’t happen was published on the cover of a national art magazine, and I actually lived to see it. Who could have ever guessed? And that’s the point I want to emphasize: We don’t know what’s out there in front of us. We can’t guess what waits for us in the future. If I didn’t keep getting up and going forward against all odds, this joyous accomplishment would never have happened. I beg you not to give up your fairy tale. Keep breathing in and out and putting one foot in front of the other.
As an artist, I’ve often considered how life is like a blank canvas. You are the artist – you are holding the brush. Art and life both demand the same discipline, hard work, and focus. Put color and texture on your canvas, where otherwise there might be nothing.
by Fran Di Giacomo, PHD (Perpetually Hairless Dame) artist, and author of
I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears.