Not in the Pink: Trying to be positive about breast cancer when it positively sucks!

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www.notinthepink.ca

As individuals with different experiences, we almost always act differently when it comes to adversity. What exactly is adversity? If you look on dictionary.com, it will tell you that, “Adversity is an adverse unfavorable fortune of fate. A condition marked by misfortune, calamity of distress.”

We all have experienced adversity in some form whether it’s something small like a parking ticket or a larger adversity, such as a death in the family or an illness.

How do you react to adversity? Do you go into a rage? Become a victim? Do you simply laugh it off? Or, like my guest today, artist Tina Martel, do you get to a point when you realize, no matter how much positivity you project onto an adversity, sometimes you have to admit and face the reality that the adversity positively sucks.

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This past May was an absolute gong-show at my work. It was my first year organizing the city’s, Youth Engagement Awards, an award ceremony that honours businesses and organizations in the community that have gone over and above in engaging youth.

Everything was going smoothly. I had the concert ready to go and all the photographs were printed for the youth photography exhibition. The youth were pumped and excited to experience their photos being printed and displayed for the very first time.

The exhibition was to be held at the local cultural centre, a beautiful space with long white walls, perfect for displaying art.

I met two of the youth at the entrance and, as we began walking around the corner, I saw all these amazing pieces of artwork leaning up against the walls.

I thought to myself, “This is beautiful!”

But, when I turned the second corner I was greeted with even more art work and a group of people installing the pieces on the walls. The same walls where we were scheduled to hang our photography show.

I looked a bit stunned, I’m sure, as I questioned one of the people installing. “So, what’s going on?” The young girl responded, “Oh, this is the college student art show.”

In my mind I kept repeating, “Uh-oh,” but it seems that all that would come out of my mouth was, “No..!”

It was then that artist Tina Martel approached me, extending her hand and introducing herself. I came to find out quickly that the centre had made an error and gave the college permission to put their work up early. “Oh my goodness Cara, I am so sorry!” Tina apologised with a bit a panic in her voice. As an artist I am sure she was empathizing with how this moment would be stressful in my mind.

I had all the invites out, the press were covering the event and everyone was showing up in three hours. I had to think fast, and I did. As I looked around at all the art work the next words to come out of my mouth were, “This is…this is…AWESOME!”

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The look of shock on Tina’s face was priceless. “Really?” she questioned, “Are you sure?”

“Of course,” I continued, “How perfect is it to have a youth art show for the opening of the youth engagement awards?”

I explained to her that if this misunderstanding was going to happen let’s all be grateful that it happened with someone like myself who is Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate and who loves art!

“I’ll be right back,” Tina blurted out and ran off down the hall returning quickly with a book in her hand. I’d love to thank you with a copy of my book, “Not in the Pink.” It’s my story of overcoming breast cancer.

In response, I did this thing that I really need to learn to get a grip on. It’s when I hear someone who has gone through a rather tough experience and I sound way too excited about it. With bright eyes I said, “Wow, that’s awesome and amazing!” Then I corrected myself, “Um, it’s not awesome and amazing that you had breast cancer, but it’s really amazing that you created this work from your experience.”

I fell in love with Tina, her story and her book. Not only were the pages filled with intense and captivating illustrations, but her writing had me laughing out loud. Considering her subject matter is cancer it takes quite a bit of talent, not only to find the humor in the situation, but to effectively share it with readers.

Here is my interview with the talented artist Tina Martel, author of Not in the Pink.

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Cara: First off, I want to tell you how much I loved this book. It’s interesting to me because I think it would probably be something not only extremely challenging to live through, but to write about and create art around it. Then, essentially live through it again, in that process. Tell me how you came to the decision to create it as an art piece and as a book.

Tina: Being an artist, like I have been doing for a long time, it was a logical first step to me to make images around what was happening. It was my way of processing my life. I work through issues, I have fun with it. I knew I was going to be out of my studio for a long time, so I had this vision in my head; it was a very good vision. I would be down for hours at a time with chemo therapy and all the different tests they needed to put me through. Easy right? I’ll just sit there and draw. Well, that didn’t happen because you’ve got one arm that’s restricted with an I.V and you can’t sketch in a book with only one hand. So I would go home afterward and I would draw and I would paint little things. Being out of the studio, I still needed that creative outlet. It was the way I processed what was happening in the beginning, then it all grew from that. Once I got back into my studio between treatments I started painting and at the same time I was writing emails to people, because you get very tired of talking to people. It’s lovely that they phone and they want to know what’s going on, but after the sixth phone call you just think, “I really don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

So I started an email list where every few weeks I would do a little update trying to keep it informative but not too heavy, and that was hard to do sometimes. Then I started to get emails from people requesting to be on my email list and people were commenting that they were really enjoying my updates. I responded, “Wow, there is a sick bunch of people out there..(Haha)” So when I sat down and thought about it I really wanted to do a kind of sketch book about the experience and combine the emails.

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Cara: I think that maybe people don’t realize, before they are ill and then get a diagnoses, before you have to go through a procedure that you do have an idea that you will create in your downtime but your energy, mentally and physically is absolutely zapped. There may even be moments where you think, “Am I even an artist anymore?” You begin to question your identity and ask, “Who am I if I am not an artist?” Can you tell me about any feelings you might have felt similar to this?

Tina: As an artist, that was the identity I didn’t feel like I lost but I did have this very romantic notion that I talk about in the book where I thought it would be like a montage of me going in for treatments with a handsome oncologist. Well, that didn’t happen either. This whole idea that it would go quickly and I would go from treatment to treatment, me falling asleep with my head in all the books I was studying. You know, typical montage stuff. Oh, that was not the reality.

Once I got over the notion that it wasn’t going to be this romantic and quick process, it was easy for me to curl up with my sketch books and all of the reports that I have gathered. That was easy. It was my identity as a woman that became quite a bit more complicated because again, I refer to it in the book as, “being desexualized.” You certainly feel that way. Our society right now is such that there is this idea of “the perfect woman.” We sit all the time and we are bombarded by the media constantly. You really question who you are. You’ve lost your hair, your breast, if they survived, are scarred and they don’t look like they previous did, and you are not the same person you were when you are finished treatment. You can’t be. You simply can’t be.

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Cara: I want to talk to you a little bit about something that was extremely interesting for me in your book because as I think that after meeting you, I can tell that you’re very conscious person. You seem very connected to people, like you would approach life from a spiritual-outlook just in general. I noticed in the book you really talk about how that can be so damaging in many ways, when there’s all this pressure but if you’re positive enough and if you work hard enough, that you can heal yourself. I do believe that we can heal ourselves on some level but if we’re not ready it can have the opposite effect, it can be damaging. I noticed that you talked about guilt and not feeling positive enough. Can you talk to me about when you approach this in your book, how did it feel to kind of reflect on those moments of positivity and I’m going give one example from your book “Fuck Cancer.”

Tina: I think we should all be saying that a lot more often, quite frankly. This idea of embracing it. I heard that, over and over again from the medical profession, from people around me, “Well you’re not going to get better, if you have that attitude.” Well, my attitude really had nothing to do with it. Going through all of this drama with treatments, I went on thinking “Oh my god, I’m going be the best cancer patient ever. I’m going to just breeze through this! This is going to be nothing. I’m healthy. No big deal!”

I just got flattened. So the idea that I brought that on myself in some way or that I was continuing to bring it on myself just really frosted me. A friend of mine says the cemeteries are full of dead positive people and I think that’s probably true, and you’re right, I am NOT a negative person. I actually I do approach my life, very “What’s going to happen next, won’t this be exciting!” I’m afraid that the expectations from most people for being positive is that you put a smile on your face and you just make sure that the world thinks you are happy about this. Hence, the “fuck cancer!” How can you be happy about this? I need to feel what I need to feel, to be a human being, I need to be angry, I need to be happy, and I need to be sad, I need to feel guilty.   All of those things make us human beings. You know, what you’re asking me to be is almost less than a human being. Am I’m supposed to be this creature who is just flying through all of this and making you feel better because I feel really good about it?  So, I think we have to be really careful with that definition of what is being positive.  I think the definition that most people have is that being positive you stick a smile on your face and everything is good. It’s not good!

Cara: So really you found out that it positively sucks!

Tina: Perfect! Absolutely! That was my definition of positive, it positivity sucks. That’s a good one.

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Cara: And really I think it kind of goes into the idea of your title. I love the fact that you titled this book “Not in the Pink.”  I’d love for you to talk to me about the idea for the title of this book because you have a zesty, sarcastic way of approaching this that is so raw and genuine that I would burst out laughing at parts. I was truly grasping you’re not in the Pink title.

Tina: First of all, I want to be really clear that the idea for the title was not actually mine.  Somebody else proposed it to me. A dear friend of mine who is an author helped me out with the book at the beginning. She laughed one day and said, “You should call it Not In the Pink!”

Then I actually thought about it and I started thinking about the culture and the reality of a cancer diagnosis right now. With all due respect to the pink culture, it certainly has raised awareness to breast cancer, but I think what they’ve also done it is forced us into one narrow little chute, and you better fit into that chute because otherwise you aren’t playing on the pink team. What I was hearing in the media, and what I was hearing through the organizations, was not really what I was hearing in the waiting room talking to women. They were not waving their pink banners, they were not waving their teddy bears, they were devastated and they were sad, they were all those things that make you real. The conversation I kept having with them was that this pink culture was not realistic. When my friend suggested the title I thought “YES, Not In the Pink!” Then of course I had this moment of guilt and I thought oh crap, “You’re going to fly in the face of everybody out there that is wrapped up in pink ribbons and all of the stuff that goes with it.” Then I thought, you know what it’s about time somebody did. I’m not I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just saying that shouldn’t there be room for all of us? If you want to embrace that culture you can, and if you want to have a culture that speaks to who you are and what you are and what you believe, shouldn’t you be able to have that too? Most of us feel like we’re not playing on the team anymore

Cara: Often times when you’re subject to a lot of medical procedures you begin to feel like a lab rat. You are being poked, your being prodded and you kind of hold onto compassion in every little bit you can get. I think it’s almost like you’re being pushed through to the next test, the next experience and by the end your like “Mother of God,” I just need someone to talk to me like a person. I noticed that you said about one of your doctors “he’s treating me like a human being and not a widget to be processed.” How is it important for people out there to really understand compassion when it comes to the medical profession and the people who going through treatment?

Tina: I don’t know if you know what’s going on with Alberta Health Services right now but there is a huge movement. They did a study over a three-year period and they decided that the doctors, the nurses and the specialists were not listening to patients. It took three years to find that out.

Cara: And how many billions of dollars?

Tina: And we won’t even go into the millions of dollars.  They are now going to take three years to roll out a program that’s going to make them more interactive with the patients. Well a friend of mine says that she taught her three-year-old how to listen in about five minutes, so really isn’t that complicated, but it seems to be, and I think that’s what happens in the medical profession is not listening to you. They are telling you what you should be feeling, what you should be doing, how you should be doing. I don’t know how many times I’ve phoned with a problem, I’ve phoned the hotline and be told, “Well that’s not supposed to be happening!”  Okay, but it is so how do I deal with this. So what part of me speaking about this are you not listening to. So that compassion, with most of the medical profession, is missing now. I was lucky with some of my doctors, and my oncologist. I was very lucky because I’m sure he was ready to strangle me at times but he did listen and he did address my fears. A lot of people say their specialists were the least apt to listen, but I actually thought that the other way around, that the people that were the least apt to listen were the ones that dealt with it every single day on the level where they were treating you with chemotherapy, they were doing the radiation, they were the ones who tended to be more, “Okay, let’s get you in and out of here.” I just don’t really get that because the medical profession, like the teaching profession, which is about listening, and it is about compassion, caring for the people that you have under your care, so when did we stop listening.

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Cara: Maybe there’s something that we’re not seeing in regards to how the caregivers are being treated. Are they getting the support they need because it must be very traumatic to watch people dying and be expected to be ok with that every day? That must be absolutely awful, so if they are putting the program together I’m honestly hoping that they’ll look at that as well because it could be a form of protection and in the end everybody would really benefit. .

Tina: So how do you get support for the medical people? I think I have a tendency to look at both sides and I know there are so many people in for treatments, and they are looking at their terrified faces over and over again. How do you support these people so that they can do their job?

Cara: There was a time in your treatment where you were faced with the realization that you were going to have to allow people to help you, and people really wanted to help you, but I know that can be one of the most difficult things for all of us, to allow people to help you especially if you’re really independent. For example, when you were saying to me that you were going to breeze into chemotherapy, can you talk to me about what that was like for you to get to a place to allow everyone to help.

Tina: Oh, it was difficult. You hit the nail on the head, it’s the whole idea of being independent and I have always seen myself as being a really independent woman. I was the one that people come and say “can you help me with this.” My students do that at work. I’m the one that’s in charge. I don’t want to sound like a control freak but you know there’s a comfort level with that, but now all of a sudden I’m not in charge, I’m not in control and I need people to help me. I need people to support me emotionally. I need people to do things for me, and it’s really hard to admit that, “you know, I’m not doing very well with this, I need to talk about this.” It’s not even complicated things, but to ask for those things, oh my God it’s one of the toughest things that I think I had to do. To actually say no I am NOT doing very well, I need help.

Cara: I want to talk a little bit more about what happens as a woman and when you undergo treatment such as this and your body starts to deteriorate and you become, like you said, desexualized. You mentioned in your book you compared yourself to looking like a 14 year old boy but then you have the realization that you maybe look like a 54 year old balding man. What did you do to rise up inside? How did you deal with that internally?

Tina: This is going to sound like a real over-simplification of this, but this is one of the things I did every single time I went out.  I made sure that I put lipstick on…haha. I know that sounds really crazy and a little shallow, but seriously, I would think to myself the least I can do is put some lipstick on. So I would put makeup on and I would make sure that I drew my eyebrows on and I’m a drawing instructor for heaven’s sake how hard could it be to draw a couple of eyebrows. I wouldn’t go into my chemotherapy treatments wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. I would actually put on a nice dress or a nice pair of paints, or whatever, because I thought at least I can go through some kind of emotions that make me feel better. I know there is a de-sexualization as I said, because once again your breasts are being, if not removed, scarred and changed. But, once your eyebrows and your eyelashes start falling out you don’t even feel like a human being anymore. It’s not even about being a woman. You look in the mirror and you feel like an alien and you wonder who that person is. Are they even a person anymore?

I want to tell you a story about a surgery and breasts, because I did opt to have a lumpectomy. I have massive scars on that side, four-inch scars, one of them had to be opened twice. I thought I had recovered pretty well. You know, there’s some misshape but I thought I could live with it. I remember going in to see my radiation oncologist and she said, “Radiation can cause you to lose about another 20 percent of the breast tissue. It becomes hard in there, so you may end up having to have reconstruction.” I thought, “Good God, that’s why I went through all of this, so I didn’t have to go through reconstruction. If I had known it was even a possibility, maybe I would have made a different decision. But her attitude was, “Well, wouldn’t you want new breasts?” and I thought, “Well, no! I don’t! I kind of like the old ones!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from the medical profession, “Well, you’ll get new breasts!” I didn’t know I needed new ones, but apparently I did! It is just what you’re getting. I could have bigger ones, I could have them look like whatever I want to look like. But I want them to look like they do! Can you do that?  I don’t think they can but there is a sort of blankness, where nobody seems to understand why you would want to stay with what you have. I know I’m not the biggest woman in the world but nonetheless I’m happy with these, I’ve had them for a long time. I would have liked to have kept them like that. So there is this kind of attitude where, “It’s not that big a deal” but IT IS A BIG DEAL!

Cara: And, you didn’t get a wig in the end did you?

Tina: No, I didn’t.  I refuse to. I was stubborn and I thought, “I am NOT getting one of these, I don’t like them!” I tried, but I did it more from other people’s pressure than how I felt about it.  I really thought being bald, “what’s the big deal?” and at times it was a big deal and at times it certainly wasn’t. I got these weird looks at times when I was out and I also had people walk up to me and say, “you’re beautiful.” People that I didn’t know! That was the thing that shocked me the most. I tell you tell the story in the book about a young man walking up to me, I’m sitting having a coffee by myself in the coffee shop and waiting to see my homeopath. He walked up to me and he says, “I don’t know why you did what you did, but I want to tell you that you look beautiful without your hair,” and then he walked away. It was so genuine and so sweet and then just he just walked away. He was looking at me, not at what society expects or wants from me. It was just an incredibly kind gesture.

Cara: Tina, it makes me think, when I read that part and hearing you tell the story, who are you really wearing the wig for?

Tina: Exactly, who are you wearing it for? My husband and I used to play a game, the “Who’s wearing the wig game.” It’s not a very challenging game, it really isn’t, because you can spot them. They don’t sit right and they move around, and I thought, “I don’t want to do this!”  I did wear a scarf occasionally. I had chemotherapy mostly during the winter and honestly there were days you couldn’t go outside without putting a hat on. It’s really cold when you don’t have any hair. Bu yeah, who are we wearing the wig for?

Cara: Humor is a huge part of you, and since I met you, I just love your humor! It’s so dry and sarcastic and hilarious.

Tina: I was brought up with the family that it might have been a defence mechanism, but we used humor. I mean I talked about it in the book, with my brother lying down in the coffin that we were choosing for my father to see if it would fit him.  My mother, bless her soul, never told us to stop. She would always just laugh.  She would laugh and then she would tell us to stop. So we kind of got this mixed message about whether we should be doing that or not. So we’re all kind of like that, it was always our way of dealing with whatever was going on around us. How do you find the humor in it?  There is humor in absolutely everything! I come from line of storytellers. My grandfather was a storyteller and I loved him. He would launch into these stories about growing up in Romania and coming here and moving to the prairies and he just told the greatest stories. I think I channel my grandfather when I tell stories and they were always funny and they were always poignant. The storytelling part of the book came naturally. I thought when I write this book, I just wanted it to sound like a conversation. So you get the works, you get the tears, you get the laughter, you get the sarcasm. One of the most amazing things to me that has happened this book is, for example, I got a review posted on Amazon the other day that said, “I laughed, I cried and I was angry all on the same page.”  I thought, “Perfect,” because it’s real and it’s raw. I actually wrote the book I wanted to read. To me, what was out there when I was first diagnosed, was either inspirational, and that’s great, but I didn’t think this was a gift. At least it wasn’t a gift I wanted and it didn’t come with a receipt. The other extreme seem to be very factual. Sometimes when you are reading all those facts it becomes really overwhelming. You think, “Oh my God, I can’t make it through this.”  So I thought I needed something in the middle, something that just talked about a human being going through an experience that they never thought they were going to have to and what it was like. That’s where it came from, that was the book I wanted to read and that was the book wrote.

 

 

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