Illness was romanticized for me at a very young age. My mother died of cancer when she was twenty-six. I was left with one photo of her for the rest of my life, which was her wedding photo. She was beautiful with long dark waves falling over her shoulders, pinkness in her cheeks, full naturally red lips and an expression that gave away her devilish charm. I have been told that on her last morning on earth she did her best to tease a young resident, making him blush as he examined her. She was adored, gorgeous, light-hearted and mischievous. I wanted to be just like her in every way. She died before she graduated from nursing school and along with her wedding photo I was given her nursing texts. I grew up with her sister’s family. Secretly, hoping to come to know something more of her, I would regularly flip through the pages of her Pathology text. The images in her Pathology text disturbed me and gave me nightmares. I became fearful that I would one day have a terrible illness. However, my twisted fantasy allowed me to imagine images of myself sick in a hospital bed. I was certain it would happen. I imagined being just like her would bring me closer to her. I allowed myself to imagine the future as a young woman, with long wavy dark hair, lying helpless in a hospital bed where people would come to adore and tend to me as they did her. At thirty-six I was diagnosed with cancer and soon came to learn there is nothing romantic about it whatsoever.

Imagery played an essential role in coping with the surgeries, treatment and fear that followed. In the early days and weeks following the diagnosis. I read Thomas Moore’s book “Dark Night of the Soul”. In it, Moore describes this state of the soul with a very powerful image: being in the belly of a whale. I took this image for my own. Moore offers this image as a way of coping with fear and anxiety, combined with faith (in a good outcome). While in the belly of the whale, he explains, you are in a dark cavernous unfamiliar place, you are moving toward the shore because the whale itself is moving towards the shore. It is an image that eases the surrendering of yourself to a process that cannot be negotiated. Surgeries were booked. I was told to take a year off work…because I was now in the belly of the whale.

After the second surgery to remove the primary source (ovaries) I was told there would be yet another surgery, sooner rather than later. This phase of the process involved the introduction of a new surgeon who was to perform a complicated ten-hour procedure. I had been in the belly of the whale for 6 months. I imagined it coming into shallow water and allowing me to walk out. Things had become more serious and more uncertain. I realized that I needed to be less in the dark and more involved in my own care. (The very day I decided this; I went to my favourite beach and walked, bawling, in the pouring rain. I almost stepped on it before I realized there was a dead baby whale lying on the rocks. The whale appeared perfect with the exception of a clean slice in its abdomen. I chose to take it as a good omen and that it was right to leave the whale’s belly). I traded the image of trying to trust while in the dark, with the appointment of myself as the new captain of the ship. I read everything I could on cancer and nutrition. I fired my family doctor and found a new young female doctor. I assembled a team of alternative care-givers and began to train for this 10 hour surgery by eating shark steaks, as much protein as possible for speedy healing, and began running 5k every evening. Another image came- Rocky Balboa. I was training for the fight of my life.

I read Dr. Bernie Siegel’s “Love, Medicine and Miracles” and knew that I wanted to be an “e-patient”. I became one. I began visualizing and drawing the image of blue liquid- divine energy/ water entering my crown chakra, cleansing my interior and flushing out any bad cells. I began drawing images from pop culture, not intentionally, but what came to me came and I did not question it. I was in a spiritual and emotional groove that could not be shaken. I wanted an extremely powerful image for the cancer cells, white blood cells, and the divine spirit of healing. There is scene in “The Lord of the Rings” where the black cloaked wraiths (symbols of threat and harm) are on one side of a canal, and Awin (symbol of divine mysterious healing powers and unfailing hope) is on the other with a failing Frodo limp in her lap. She shouts across the canal “If you want him, come and get him”. Then the water between the wraiths and Awin swells, the wraiths start to cross the canal, and the water turns into a stampede of giant horses that form such a force that all of the wraiths are killed and washed away. Awin takes Frodo off to heal with her people. I imagined that the wraiths were my cancer cells, I was Frodo, Awin was my divine protection and facilitator of healing, and most importantly, my white blood cells were a rushing force of nature swelled beyond their normal size, together, active and creating an impossible environment for any more bad cells.

The power of this image gave me such confidence that I began to reframe everything I was told by doctors with an image that worked for me. The surgeon explaining the horrifying details of the surgery spoke routinely “then we will strip away the peritoneum…”. I stopped him and requested that from now on, he use the language “gently peel away the peritoneum”. He says he uses the phrase to this day. I began noticing how the language of doctors and other medical professionals caused unnecessary anxiety because of the images their words conjured up. Before walking down the hall into the operating room, I was fully at peace and relaxed because I had made a list of everyone who I loved, living and dead, who were to accompany me to surgery. As I was processed for surgery I read the list over and over again. I played out the scene in my head of the river of white horses, and the surgery was completed with no complications in half the time it normally takes. My abdominal incision healed a week before schedule.

The next challenge would be chemotherapy. I bought a white board and wrote the following on it “chemotherapy is a Christine-friendly temporary pesticide that will contribute to the well-being of the rain-forest that is my stomach”. When one image seemed to no longer serve or make a difference, I would find another image. The next image, after four grueling treatments was that of a blue Herron. I sketched a Blue Herron because I noticed in between treatments when I went to the beach, a Blue Herron must remain still. The treatments and having to spend long summer days in the hospital getting fluids, made me feel like a tethered dog. This was a particularly difficult time. It had been a year since the beginning of the ordeal and I felt I was running out of steam. I replaced the tethered tired dog with the blue Herron, which helped. The Herron must remain still, with the knowledge that there is something good waiting just under the surface of his reflection…the nourishment he needs. The image of the Herron allowed me to connect with patience.

I am certain that my psychological, emotional and spiritual states of being throughout my ordeal are what kept me internally intact while feeling physically deconstructed. The image of being deconstructed, of being Humpty Dumpty, lingered with me when treatments came to an end. I tried to paint how disoriented I felt when treatments ended. I used a large canvass and in the end, after the paint dried, I shredded it with a knife. I bawled in disbelief at what my body had been through, at the lost time, the lost opportunity for children, the lost income, and the lost sense of innocence. I crawled inside the frame that held the canvass together and cried until I fell asleep.

Later I met with a psychologist; I told her this incident is what had led me to seek out someone to help me process my experience with cancer. I began by picking up the pieces I shredded and sewing bits of them back together. Some pieces I arranged and framed without sewing them back together. The image of myself had gone through many phases: passenger of the whale, captain of the ship, Rocky, recipient of harmless pesticide to restore the flora and fauna in my internal environment, Blue Herron, Humpty Dumpty, to shreds of canvass temporarily placed, possibly to be rearranged in the future. I am currently working on the image of being Treewoman. Severe depression and PTSD have clouded my sense of belonging to the earth and my purpose. I am imagining roots, roots open to receive nourishment of the earth and limbs that can bear fruit. I’m working on it. The role of my imagination in my ability to cope and navigate difficult challenges, heal and reframe- even become integrated again is and will always be essential. I have always known that my imagination and my soul are inextricable. Surviving a life threatening illness has invigorated me about the possibilities of imagery, visualization and personal iconography in healing and well-being.

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