Finished! 18″ x 24″, pencil & marker on Bristol. Click for full size. I am so curious, so this is for everyone, not just fellow artists. For the artists, how would you depict cancer and chemotherapy? For all the non-artists, how do you picture things like cancer and chemotherapy? What shape do they take in your head? Prior to getting cancer, I can’t say I ever gave it any thought at all, and I’m not overly sure where the images in The Fight came from, they were just there. After trying to think about it for a bit, seems the main concepts in my head had to do with fluidity and a crackling electricity, mass power out of control.
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Ice Swimmer says
My non-artist answer: I see cancer as a beige, gray or brown growth, ether branching or lemon shaped, with a similar surface texture that a lemon would have. Chemotherapy would be siphoning some nasty-looking liquid down some tubing into a catheter to a vein in the arm.
My sort of amateur artist answer: Cancer in music, I’d make something with both distorted and clean sounds, maybe some Leslie (rotating speaker) or phaser and wah effect with the distorted sounds, but also some peaceful and melancholic parts, maybe even briefly joyous, chaos and order, shifting moods, loud and quiet. For chemotherapy, maybe some raw-sounding or dissonant long notes/chords (a pad on top or below the melody). I’m not sure if I have it in me to make such a piece.
chigau (違う) says
I’ve always thought of cancer not so much as an invasion from outside as
treason from within.
It’s the colour of raw liver.
chigau (違う) says
Chemotherapy is like hiring the Hell’s Angels to do security at a concert.
Daz: Uffish, yet slightly frabjous says
My mind has, not so much a picture of cancer, but an association. When I was little, I found out about an aunt having cancer on the same day we’d learned about Pompeii at school. Both upset me, and it built an association with a person choking on ash.
Raucous Indignation says
I see cancer on an ultra-structural and organic chemistry basis. Cytoskeletal protrusions creating psuedopodia where there should be none. Zinc finger proteins. Adhesion molecules. Activated genes that should be dormant. Metalloproteinases breaking down extracellular matrix. Unfettered replication due to multiple defects in the DNA. Repair mechanisms that have been knocked out. Typically ineffectual response by the immune cells responsible for surveillance. Pull back to light microscope level and there are nests of cells with multiple different clones of cancer cells. Somewhere in there are the progenitor cancer stem cells. Pull back further and you can see tumors with cross sectional imaging and the naked eye. Pull back further and there are the people. The people you care for and care about.
Marcus Ranum says
I always picture cancer as this death-casting I did of a hand. The dead man’s wife asked me to do a memento of him, and the whole thing was very strange; I found myself in the house of the dead at around midnight, with the corpse -- the mortician in charge was very helpful, gracious, careful, and gentle. He didn’t ask why she’d asked me to do the casting, he just nodded and said “I’ll help you.” It was hard to mold and demold a dead hand, because you can’t really position the arms very well; I improvised and emptied a tissue paper box, cut a hole for his hand, jammed paper around the hole to semi-seal it -- it felt wrong to use gaffer tape on his skin even though I knew he didn’t care. My first mold failed; my hands shook when I was breaking apart the alginate. So I did another and used silicone directly on him, painting it on and thickening it with paper towels. The mortician asked, seriously, “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” and I lied, “yeah, we do this all the time, it’s ‘plan B'”
The man I was molding had been a football player; he was a big, bluff, guy. And the cancer destroyed him. He was down to 110lb or so, and it was kidney failure that finally stopped his heart. Seeing how the cancer had burned him away, and left this fragile, waxy, shell -- it was surreal. For months afterward I sometimes thought I had had a nightmare and imagined the whole thing.
I threw a few castings of the hand in bronze, and one in black resin with bronze and a bit of aluminum for highlights. Eventually, I gave it to her, and she took the box, unopened, and put it on a shelf.
To me, that was the memory of cancer: you want to keep it in the box, unopened. You want to put it on a shelf and not look at it because it’s so scary, how it burns you to a cinder. Before that experience I was worried about cancer. Now, I am terrified. I don’t want to burn like that.
This is an interesting question and if my reply is at all offensive, PLEASE delete it. PLEASE. I don’t want anyone to think I “love” cancer; I do not. My father died of cancer. My mother just finished treatment and we are hoping against hope she will be OK. I hate cancer.
I hate cancer, but I don’t see it the way some do; if I were to paint it, I’d probably color it orange, or maybe yellow… an ordinary color. Because… I think it’s an ordinary thing, in a manner of speaking. The genetic changes are not “evil”, they just are. They are not the right thing, but they happen. Just like… blindness. Or scoliosis. Or diabetes. These things are not targeting people and trying to “get” them; they simply exist and although the results are horrific to the humans who get them, the cause is not a targeted evil that is consciously trying to destroy someone. Even though, that is often the result.
I guess I see it like floods or tsunamis or hurricanes. Or volcanoes. Powerful and pretty much out of our control although we do what we can.
Some people talk like cancer is some sort of conscious thing that is deliberately attacking and killing people, a willful evil. I see it more as a force of nature, a natural force that is incredibly destructive but does not have a mind and is not deliberately attempting anything, really. It just is. I think you do everything you can to stop it. I think you do your best to prevent and treat it. If I were to paint it, I would paint it as a huge and strong force, overwhelming, even; maybe big huge orange clouds with yellow lightning bolts, a horrid mauve atmosphere. But not evil. I think for evil, you need a mind, you need to make a choice, you need to choose to do evil. Cancer has no mind and makes no choice; it just is. In some ways… that is worse.
I see you between a rock and a hard place -- the chemo is the enemy of your enemy, but it is not your friend.
I didn’t think of music! That’s really interesting. I think I’d be able to imagine the kind of music, but I would never be able to put it together, that’s way outside any talent I have.
Yes, I see it from within too, even though it can have external causes. Very much the raw liver colour -- I used it in this piece.
That’s quite apt. You can feel quite blinded by chemo brain, and the way a lot of stuff tastes, might as well be ash. I also get this sensation of having a scorched throat each cycle, which lasts for days.
That’s truly lovely. And I love the structural and chemistry basis too; that’s what I’ve looked at a great deal when thinking about art pieces.
That’s a profoundly powerful image. I think a lot of people share it, too. It’s that very box that often kills though; the fear contained within it keeps people from going ahead with screenings, or putting off a doctor visit. There’s a wealth of strong emotion here, barely containable.
I tend to see cancer in cold and warm colours; the warm colours represent spread to me, the reach of metastasis. I agree, cancer is a very ordinary thing, it’s been happening for ages, and most often, it results from age, nothing more.
It’s difficult for me to think of cancer as a thing or a clump of cells, it does have a shadowy self, a persona, in my head. There’s no evil there though. Cancer cells are doing what cells do -- they mutate, they evolve. In those actions though, cancer cells are terrifyingly magnificent, and too often, unconquerable. I can easily see some of the worst cancers, like leukemia, being a massive storm, an all out assault. Others are more sneaky, like a tiny leak in a dam.
That’s an excellent way to state it, and that’s how it feels, too.
I know a guy who survived cancer as a young man. He made a 3d painting that incorporated one of his chemo bags and (I think I remember) a couple other objets de medical art. i remember the whole thing as very icky green, yellow and brownish. pain and anguish just erupted off the canvas. i just stared and stared. it was one of the most affective pieces of art i’ve ever seen, mostly because i knew him i guess. Kind of weird actually cause I don’t have a real good picture of it in my head (20 years ago), it’s sort of vague but still yells pretty loudly if you know what i mean, memories of memories, etc.
I don’t really have a picture of ‘cancer’ in my head, but because of his art i definately have a picture of chemo buried in there. It’s ugly green and brown.
Your picture is very active -- it’s a fight. You and two bullies. I really like the fighting attitude that shows up in your writing -- I’m a little surprised that you haven’t depicted yourself with a battle axe or machine gun in hand! But I guess we have to sub out some of our battles. I hope you win this one.
Oh, I wish I could get away with that! Everything has to be accounted for now, so chemo bags can’t go missing. Ah, the old days, when you could get away with murder. I’d love to smash one of those chemo pumps to bits to incorporate into a piece, but I’d probably get arrested for that! :D The next drawing does incorporate a chemo bag though.
Thanks. :) I hadn’t thought of it, but this isn’t a weaponised fight as such; it’s more on the invisible weapons front, mental and emotional. When it comes to actual weapons, I’m very much a blade person, but in this situation, blades are to be avoided. I’ve already had too many surgeries, and have more coming up at some point.
Raucous Indignation says
Marcus, my lab group was assigned an older man during gross anatomy in med school. He was very tall and broadly built. He had big strong hands. I was assigned the dissections of the superficial and deep structures of the hand. It’s a very intimate part of the body. More so than other supposedly shameful parts of the anatomy. It took me a full week to complete the dissections. It was many hours of delicate work. This person had donated their remains to a medical school so that I and my classmates could learn our art. Nothing effected me as much as those dissections. Not even the dissections of the head and neck. I completed those assignments and the tutorials to my classmates welling up on the verge of tears. I’m certain I shed tears for him at the ceremony for the cadavers at the close of the semester. I can’t think of a better casting to leave to a loved one than one’s hands.
Hi -- I’m a non-artist going through chemo right now for breast cancer. I found that each time I looked at your piece I saw something new or in a different way. Your background looks like the many layers of epithelial cells from our skin. The tendrils reaching out remind me of the strangler fig trying to grab you as you defiantly stare ahead -- your face fierce -- your eyes blazing. The chemo and the cancer are secondary to you -- warrior -- battling both ahead and behind you.
Many thanks for your chemo journal which I have been following -- nodding my head in agreement.
Victoriajoy, hi! Oh, breast cancer, that’s tough. How are you doing with treatment?
A strangler fig, that’s great imagery! Very apt. Yeah, we get to be warriors, don’t we? Tired warriors. With nausea and diarrhea. ;)
Marcus Ranum says
I can’t think of a better casting to leave to a loved one than one’s hands.
Yes; I just wish I had been able to do it while his hands were still mobile and not so incinerated by the disease and dehydration.
It’s our hands, I am certain, that propelled us toward what we are, now. Our clever hands, our big strong hands, our evocative hands.
I’m glad you understand. That was a really heavy request (especially since most of my life-casting experience up till then was casting shapely sets of buttocks!)
Marcus & Raucous Indignation:
I don’t think I could cope with a cast of Rick’s hand. 41 years, and it’s still automatic with us -- we hold hands everywhere we go. A cast would make me fall the fuck apart. All the memories bound in one hand, a lifetime of touches, gestures, actions. I’m crying just thinking about it.
Joseph Zowghi says
I don’t know. I’ve never thought about depicting my cancer. What I think of is the escalating fear: The x-ray, the ultrasound, and finally the biopsy, during which I felt I couldn’t breathe as the needle was repeatedly plunged deep into my throat, and all the while thinking, “Please don’t be cancer, please don’t be cancer.” It felt like a boot on my throat, slowly pressing harder.
Raucous Indignation says
Me too, Caine. I’m remembering all sorts of things I thought were behind me. Thank you for blogging.
Marcus, have you seen the sensory and motor homunculi? I’ll leave a link or two. They show how much of our brains are devoted to our hands versus the rest of our bodies. Your theory is grounded in fact; although I’m fairly certain there are a few (dozen?) actual scientists who thought of it before you.
That’s a depiction, a powerful one. Reading your words, I see a person, bound, being made to walk up steps, each one a torture, culminating with that boot. I’ve tended to leave that whole process out, but thinking on it, it has too much in common with torture. The worst time for me on a mental and emotional level was after diagnosis, the limbo before treatment, which seemed to stretch out forever. I don’t have the slightest idea of how I would go about depicting that.
I find, I cannot say anything but this:
It is both, beautiful piece of work and utterly terrifying.
Everything else I write sounds utterly hollow. Thank you for sharing.
@ Marcus: A touching story (no pun intended, really!). Hands are such important parts in the interactions with our loved ones.
Thank you. To a large extent, this helps me to bleed the terrifying part out. I was surprised when I was working on it last week in hospital, how many people saw it and murmured “pretty!”, even when they knew what it was depicting. I was struck by that, because if you work at it, you can make the fear less dominant, even if you can’t remove it entirely.
Caine -- I feel very lucky as I’m doing fine with my chemo. I’m in a cancer trial also -- and have a journal to write down symptoms. But I have little to complain about. No N/V/D. Eating well. My biggest side effects are being warm all the time and having these amazingly vivid dreams when I sleep. My chemo is only every Wednesday for 16 weeks followed by lumpectomy or mastectomy depending on how things go. I still need to do the genetic testing to see if I carry the BRCA gene. If I do -- that changes the game since the surgeon would recommend removing both breasts AND my ovaries. I’ll do the genetic testing closer to my surgical date. I can only handle so much at once and need to get through the chemo first. We just do the best we can. Victoria
I’m glad to hear you’re doing so well! I don’t know how well I’d cope with chemo every week, I’m every two weeks, on folfox (leucovorin, 5-fluorouracil, oxaliplatin). The oxali comes with a lot of side effects, mine haven’t been too bad so far. After that, radiation and xeloda. Lately, I’ve been getting the weird tastes, so eating has been a bit of a challenge, and I’m supposed to be on a low fiber diet, not the most exciting food ever. :D
I’m on only eight cycles though, you have twice as much! Yeah, you don’t need to be worried about surgeries yet, it’s enough to deal with one thing at a time. Took long enough for me to get that through my head, but it’s well settled now.
Depicting the shape of cancer would start with bone shards for me, jagged pieces for brokenness, shattering, acute pain and some type of perceived heat/aggression/anger. I would also need some hollow cross-sections of bones to help with the next phase, which would be bright 3D “paint drips” (coloured latex or something similar to keep them plump and bright) to represent the cells. Eye-searing colours, intentionally, some in combinations, in and on the bones. Throughout the whole, more coloured latex in something like a cagework, or like a model of blood vessels arching through the empty space -- think a bit like cage fungus. Network, connections, for both the poison of illness and the poison of chemo. Bright hot reds and pinks, I think.
Whirlwitch, that would be an absolutely stunning piece!
Joseph Zowghi says
Whirlwitch, that would be so evocative.
I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. Wonderful finish to the work, by the way, the city-scape cell background adds a touch of superhero world that fits the idea perfectly.
To me, cancer is a shadow. A touch of chill in summer, snowless pines in the deep drifts of winter. Just something a little odd, a little off, not quite there but wrong in all sorts of ways, obvious once pointed out -- lurking. Oily, but with sharpness. Elusive, pervasive, with no real colour but what it borrows or reflects (different cancers, different colours, different colour reflections), the cruel subtext of an ordinary idea. It’s that weird, syncopated discord underneath the melody -- mostly low vibrations and basses, but at an uncomfortable frequency, a resonance that bites in the ear through all the harmony and doesn’t let go. A sense of inevitability, like natural disasters (as mentioned above) but less impersonal. It has chosen you, but there’s no rhyme or reason behind that choice: a cousin to Death, the one who shows up to parties but doesn’t socialize except to ruin the conversation with jarring non sequiturs and an annoying loud laugh. And then moves on to the next group of happy party-goers.
That’s about as close as I can get to describing the way I see cancer.
Holy shit. Yes, to all of that. It’s that.