Life Around Chemotherapy

Life Around Chemotherapy

I was released from the clinic in mid-June and was now halfway through my chemotherapy. I had lots of time to paint, but only after I had figured out how to structure my life around chemotherapy, 12 days on prednisone, and care of my Hickman.

When I finally mastered, "Proper Care and Maintenance of the Hickman," I found out it would be there for many months. The best way for me to handle it was with humor. I wrote a comic poem about the catheter, which went like this:

Ode To The Hickman
by Darcy Dovetonsils'

Oh my little Hickman, how flush your tubes,
All the clicking and clacking as you dangle between my boobs.
I detest you most while I am in the shower.
I wish you would get out---our relationship has gone sour!

Pretty bad, I admit, but Hickman wearers will appreciate it!

Painting was limited to a few hours each day, except for actual chemotherapy days and the days afterward. I painted with passion and fury and managed to complete most of the series during the summer to the end of chemotherapy and before my bone marrow harvest. Some of my work follows.

Pieta Pieta/Start of the Climb
Oil on canvas. 1991. 24" X 18"

Pietal/Start of the Climb was the first of the series. The idea for it came to me while I was in intensive care; I later did a sketch of it while in the clinic. The scene depicts my doctors rescuing me from a sewer of lymphoma, carrying me to the light at the end of the tunnel. Each is placed symbolically to show his role in my survival. Dr Barnes pulls me by the ankles to the exit --he has a cure. Dr Leonard supports me under the arm, protectively, while Dr Douglas holds my hand and points to the exit, encouraging me to keep on fighting and to believe in myself. We are all covered in lymphoma muck, because they came right down into the sewer with me.

Self-Portrait With Hickman and ScarSelf-Portrait With Hickman and Scar
Oil on canvas. 16" x 24"

This painting was a turning point for me. It was the first time I have ever painted myself nude. I photographed myself using a timer and worked from that image.

My dear friend Julia (who gave me the idea for the series) said, "Paint everything." Part of that was to lace my scars and know that I am still alive.

After the tubes in my mouth and nose were removed in the intensive care unit, I was given oxygen. This is the image I saw, myself and two large protective seals swimming underwater. We did not surface, swimming straight in our heaven underwater. My chest tube added to the effect, as it made sounds like bubbles underwater.

Nurse HelenNurse Helen
Oil on canvas. 16" x 20"

Nurse Helen is also a tribute, to her and to all the nurses who gave so much of themselves. While in the hospital, I found that it was often a nurse who comforted me when I felt scared or alone. My appreciation of and respect for nurses grew enormously.

Doctor TriptychDoctor Triptych
Oil on canvas. 20" x 28"

Due to the small space in my room, the only way I could paint on a large scale was to use separate canvases. To prepare for Doctor Triptych, I photographed my doctors without their white lab coats, being careful to get their hands within the picture frame.

I painted them in bright colors against a dark, medieval-looking background to contrast the fear of the unknown with the very real and reassuring presence of my doctors. In the pillars I placed symbolic images of each doctor based on my sketches from the hospital. Dr Barnes is The Preacher, Dr Douglas is Sunshine, and Dr Leonard is The Knight with his sword. In each one, I also placed a seal, my symbol of hope. The painting is my tribute to them for the physical and emotional care they gave me.

Brooklyn Botanic GardensBrooklyn Botanic Gardens
Oil on canvas. 30" x 20"

September came, and I finished chemotherapy. I had run out of ideas for my series, so I returned to painting nature.

Self-Portrait ReflectionSelf-Portrait Reflection
Oil on canvas. 20" x 28"

This painting is based on my reflection in the lights of the operating room after the Hickman catheter was put in. It shows my vulnerability and dignity. I found that by admitting my vulnerability, I could accept and live with it.

After the HarvestAfter the Harvest
Oil on canvas. 16" x 22"

I had a check-up with Dr Barnes in mid-September. He told me I was doing very well and that the next step was radiation. But prior to that I needed a bone marrow harvest in case the lymphoma returned and I required a transplant.

I had an appointment with Dr Blake, the radiotherapist, so she could set me up after the harvest. She was an alert, spunky woman, and we took to each other immediately.

After my harvest (which was scary for me because I had to go to another hospital) I limped into my hospital for radiation therapy. I was full of holes and had to count them all, like the Beatles song, A Day in the Life. My chest was then painted with fuchsia T's and L's for the first eight "zaps" of the treatment. I would receive a total of 24 in the end, the last 16 being around my sternum.

The day I received my blue tattoos I ran a low-grade fever so I was sent for x-rays and cultures. I went to see Dr Barnes, who informed me the x-rays showed nothing. "I think we will wait to see if your cultures show anything before I decide to put you on antibiotics."

"IV antibiotics?" I asked warily, fearful that I would be put back into the clinic.

"No, it would be oral antibiotics."

"Good." No clinic, I thought to myself. "You mean we can't go to Washington Square Park?"

"Sure we can go to Washington Square Park," he said as he listened to me and my heart at the same time. "Why are we going there?" He gave me a quizzical look.

Washington Square Park
Dr Barnes and me, looking for "drugs" in Washington Square Park

"To get drugs."

"Oh right, I got you. No, we don't need to go there." By now, Dr Barnes was used to my jokes.