By Susan B. Olds for LBBC
Don’t get me wrong—living with metastatic breast cancer isn’t easy. But since my diagnosis in 2007, I’ve been able to find ways to keep on living my life and loving my life.
After my first breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in 1999, I worked as a community program manager for Cancer Lifeline in Bellevue, Wash. I developed and facilitated support programs for cancer patients and survivors, including gentle yoga, nutrition, journaling and art workshops. My background as an arts administrator and art historian helped me design a successful drop-in art workshop where play and creativity were encouraged. Many who attended found the workshops to be fun support groups where the focus wasn’t entirely on the complexities of living with cancer. Usually, about halfway through the session, so much laughter filled the room that people in the next office complained!
One day, a woman joined the group in tears. We sat her down with some art supplies, and soon she was engaged in the project and interacting with others. By the close of the two-hour session, she stood up and announced to the group, “This is the first time in two years I haven’t been thinking about my cancer! Thank you!” Since then, she has continued to pursue art as a healing practice.
Her experience had a profound effect on me. While working as an arts administrator, I made it possible for others to pursue their passions. But I never had time to pursue my own. So after I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I resigned from my job to focus on my health and quality of life.
One of the first things I did was create a healing journal to help me process some of the difficult feelings associated with metastatic breast cancer. Writing my feelings down relieved much of my stress and mental anguish. Eventually I started making mixed media art as well. And like the woman in the Cancer Lifeline workshop, I found that making art somehow interrupted the pain and distress messages. It was totally absorbing. Even when I wasn’t working on art, I was thinking about it.
Then the most wonderful thing happened. A group of women from the Cancer Lifeline workshops started organizing potluck lunches and craft activities at their homes. Naturally, I joined them, and soon the events came to be known as “arty parties.” We still enjoy each other’s company, play a lot, and laugh a lot—and I mean, A LOT.
In addition to making art, in 2008 I started giving art lectures for the King County Library System. Sharing my passion for art with others has enriched my life and given it focus. The way I see it, I am still contributing something positive and living my life to the fullest. And when the cancer progresses, as it will in time, I will just make adjustments to my schedule.
The most important thing for me is not to identify too much with the cancer—to cope with it and get the best medical care, yes, but not let it define my life. When people say to someone living with cancer, “You’re so brave,” I think to myself, “Well, of course! What’s the alternative? To live in a state of fear? Who needs that?” Life is short no matter which way you look at it. And creating a good life is a choice we make, whether or not we have cancer.
I have my good days and my difficult days, but I count myself among the most fortunate. I have excellent health care, a loving husband, family and faith, and the most amazing friends. Each day I make some art, play with my dog, talk to a friend, hug my husband and make it the best day possible. In these wise words attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” Each and every day is a gift to be received, shared and celebrated.