Anxiety is something that touches the lives of all of us who go through a cancer journey. It begins with getting your head round a diagnosis and the anxious feelings that accompany coming to terms with impending treatment you don’t want to be having. It continues with the stress of waiting for the results of scans that show how successful your treatment has been. To me this was nothing compared to the anxiety produced by feelings emerging after I had gone into remission. Feelings that I had bottled up in order to face the situation I found myself in and to be strong for my husband, child and family. Feelings that would rise up unexpectedly when life didn’t quite go to plan.
Yet, throughout this challenging time there was one thing that was guaranteed to lift me out of this, even if only for a short time: art. Ever since I can remember there is nothing I have enjoyed more than sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper and capturing whatever is in my head. As a child I would sit and draw what I had seen in nature. I drew so much that I became quite skilled at it. As a teenager, my love of doodling got me through some tricky years when I needed to escape from the world. I carried on as an adult, not always being able to find the time to put paintbrush or pencil to paper but enjoying every moment when I did.
And of course most recently, I used art to get me through some very tricky moments after being diagnosed with non Hodgkin lymphoma last year. I sat in my hospital bed wondering how on earth I would get my head round having to have chemotherapy in a few days’ time. A friend had thoughtfully brought me in a sketch pad and pencils and I spent many hours drawing pictures of my baby son, who I only saw at evening visiting time. It didn’t take away the difficulty of the situation, but it took me away to another place, and my anxiety lifted.
Once at home, undergoing treatment and then moving into remission, I didn’t find it so easy to make time to create artworks. Apart from looking after my own health, my son was my priority and the only real time I had for myself was when he napped. The only way round this I could find was giving myself fifteen minutes each day to draw. This was enough and slowly, as each day passed, ideas in my head for paintings came to life. At this time of day, apart from needing to sleep myself, I felt a real need to switch my mind off and art helped me to do this. To me, it has always felt like a kind of meditation. By focussing on representing what I am drawing on a page, it is almost as if I am switching off a part of my brain. Objects become shapes and curves and worries become distant memories.The act of being creative not only reduces anxiety but also makes me feel that I am moving on to a new place in my life, something so necessary after what I have been through.
Art therapy can be valuable in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings that need to emerge. I recently attended an art therapy taster session organised by the charity Victoria’s Promise for our women’s cancer network. We were encouraged to create a picture showing what the group meant to us. Mine depicted rays of sunshine surrounded by flowers. I felt this was representative of the way the group was supporting me and the other ladies in moving forward in life positively. After looking more closely at a swirl I had drawn in the centre of the picture, I realised that it represented a cancer cell, present as a reminder of the anxiety that I was still going through as I moved forward in life. I had not expected this exercise to be so revealing in such a simple way.
I do not believe that there are people who are incapable of being creative. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves. It is possible to learn how to draw through various techniques which involve seeing what you are drawing as a collection of lines or shapes rather than familiar objects. Many people are told when they are young that they cannot draw or produce a good piece of artwork, which leads to a feeling of inadequacy. Adult colouring books have made art accessible to everyone, however, and are especially popular, perhaps because focusing on details in a picture and choosing colours to fill in the shapes can be so relaxing and therapeutic.
In the spirit of art and creativity helping to overcome anxiety, I am planning a charity art exhibition together with SamSpaces. This will not only raise money but also awareness of the journey that cancer can take us on, whether that be during or post treatment. We are planning to exhibit work by artists whose lives have been touched by cancer, whether as a patient or as a supporter, friend or relative. A section of the exhibition will be devoted to work by those who do not consider themselves to be artists, but have expressed through art what they are going through. If you are interested in participating, please email Sam or comment here……. Watch this space for more information!
By Sarah Govind.
Last week my daughter came down with chicken pox. Half term, lots planned and now housebound for seven days. Wonderful! Yet, as that familiar inner matron kicked in and I began the inevitable fussing and organising, I realised this was not an excuse to play top mum. It was an opportunity to stop and re asses.
Compassion has been bouncing on and off my radar a lot recently. A few months ago the amazing Shalini, who I met briefly at a conference, invited me to be part of a team setting up a free 28 day programme called Compassionate Me. I was honoured. After nine of us met to brainstorm ideas of the different things we could offer to help build, promote and support a practical and exciting scheme, I have been giving a lot of thought as to how I could make twenty eight days of March more memorable and powerful.
So, in a moment of rare peace and quiet, while my spotty little one sat glued to the high pitched squeal that is the Disney channel, I decided to ask myself a few key questions to help me focus on my thoughts towards compassion and how I would like to be involved with this project.
What do I think compassion means?
To me, compassion is being aware of how you treat others and how kind and caring you are to them and yourself. A while back, a film called Pay It Forward came out, about a boy whose school set a project where each child had to do a good dead. The recipient then had to do a good deed for three other people, rather than paying it back. It was an assignment to put into action a plan to change the world for the better. How rewarding would it be to know that because of one random act of kindness, you were infecting the world with more happiness! Compassion means noticing ourselves and listening to others. It means living life in a society where there is less fear and negativity and a little more selflessness.
Do I think I already show some compassionate? If so, how?
I consider myself a good person. I can’t do enough for friends and family. I am still a fan of snail mail and love sending cards to friends for birthdays as well as anyone going through challenging times. I mentor others who have been through cancer treatment and are struggling to adapt to life afterwards and watching them find the confidence and self esteem to fly again is incredible.
Why do I feel I want to be more compassionate?
I have been reading a lot about compassion and it has dawned on me that if I wanted to practice true compassion towards others it had to start with myself or where was the sustainability? It may sound selfish but from what I have read, I reckon this might actually be a bit of a wake up call on lots of levels, including knowing my limits and learning a bit more about myself. Truth be told, I am very good at caring about others but not always me! I often criticise and judge my actions and the things I say. I excel at putting myself under pressure and compare myself to everyone and everything from Barbie to Mother Teresa! Its time to lighten up!
How have others shown me compassion in the past?
I feel lucky to say I have some amazing experiences of others showing compassion towards me. My most memorable was ten years ago. A stranger came up to me in a restaurant one evening. I was wearing a head scarf while going through cancer treatment. He approached our table and apologised for interrupting but asked how I was doing. He then told me I would be ok, I would fight this and get through it and I looked amazing. He said he had been through it and it was important to show some solidarity. I was blown away and have carried this random act of kindness with me to this day. The girls I was with however, decided the headscarf look was clearly a great one for attracting members of the opposite sex!
Throughout my experiences fighting the big C, I found that the kindness and compassion demonstrated by doctors, nurses, volunteers, patients, friends, family as well as strangers, was incredible but I feel strongly that this sort of care and consideration shouldn’t just be valued when we are unwell or going through a challenging time or dealing with professionals whose job it is to care for others, but in every day life to every day people, for no particular reason at all, except because it could make all the difference to someones day.
What do I think I will find challenging?
Being kind to ourselves need only involve sitting for five minutes with a cup of tea (and drinking the whole thing while its still hot and maybe sneaking in a chocolate cookie too!) or having a long soak in the bath at night (again, while it is still hot and not luke warm! Are you noticing a theme?!) because it is really hard to appreciate any time for ourselves. We are so good at being busy, but never truly nurturing us.
The idea of walking up to a perfect stranger offering to buy him a coffee or helping an OAP pack her shopping will definitely be a push out of my comfort zone. I will have to perfect the skill of anonymously leaving pay it forward cards around Surrey without looking like Im stalking someone but surely that is one of the main reasons I want to do this? To make a small dent in the often insular attitude society seems to display so often.
What do I think will help me stick to this programme?
I have noticed how much more motivated I am if I am in a group environment. Take swimming; I have been recommended to swim once a week but can I get to a pool? I find swimming a very solitary sport and unless it is a class and I know people going, I find it hard to motivate myself. A programme like Compassionate Me could be perfect as it is an active forum of people with similar goals. I love the idea of weekly support tips, daily videos and blogs to help inspire and make me feel part of a network.
Mindfulness and compassion go hand in hand. With the fast paced lives we all live, it is easy to miss things and overlook special moments, the small things about ourselves as well as others. To sit in peace and stillness (is once a day asking too much?) focusing on the intentions for the day will be a really good habit to commit to more affectively.
How can I make my experience a bit different and stay motivated?
For my role in the team, I have offered to vlog daily about all the things I am doing to be more compassionate while following the weekly themes. This will be interesting! Writing is my safety blanket but I have never vlogged before, so in an effort to be compassionate to myself, I want to give myself this opportunity. I like to think that by doing this, I will be demonstrating compassion to others too by sharing and showing what we, as the team, are doing so others can draw support and encouragement from us.
At the end of the day, we are all individuals. We are all unique. Surely compassion encompasses all the elements of uniting our differences and celebrating what amazing people we are through love, kindness, respect and consideration ultimately creating more happiness, but this does take a lot of practice. It isn’t easy. From what I can tell, the first step is awareness. Some days will be harder than others, but if we begin a process like this and we are willing to take the next steps, compassion will naturally grow. If we only do one good deed for someone else this month, imagine the shift in positivity and the wave of smiles on peoples faces from one end of the globe to another. Now how heartwarming is that? x
In the first of the Samspaces Guest Blogs I want to introduce Jenny. I met Jenny through the Spero App (more info on that coming soon) and after reading a few of her blogs, so much of her passion for writing resonated with me and I asked her to help illustrate why it can be so healing to write. Over the next few months I will be featuring other guest blogs from other amazing people I have met and know, who have all found a positive focus, either through a creative channel or other types of exercise or other holistic therapies. I will still be blogging about all the things I have tried but by including other peoples experiences, I hope there will be a bigger community of us sharing all the different things that can help us through.
When I was seven years old, my mother gave me the closet in her study. It was a space just large enough for a few crucial supplies, and my small body. First we moved in a miniature futon, which barely lay flat along the floor. Then some pillows, a small lamp and an even smaller shelf that held my notebooks and paper and pens. There was no door, so we nailed a curtain—dark purple, I believe—that hung from frame to floor. I taped quotes and post cards of inspiring places on the walls. And day upon day, I curled up in that room and wrote myself through elementary school. By the time I outgrew my closet, I also felt like I was outgrowing my life, but I was still painfully stuck in it. And so, I wrote myself through that, as well. Before I left home for college, I packed all of my writing notebooks into an old suitcase and asked my mother to please, please take it with her if by some chance our home ever caught fire.
When I was growing up, I wrote because I had to. Not because someone else told me I had to write, but because my body demanded it of me. When my seven-year old friends banded together to exclude me for the day, I would go home to the closet-converted-into-a-writing room and write poem after bad poem about friendship, loneliness, betrayal. When my parents filled up the house with all their silent anger at one another, I crawled into my refuge and wrote. When I had a scary dream, or an exciting crush, or an angry fight, I pulled out my notebook and wrote. Because if I didn’t, I felt I would crumble, or explode, or drown.
Writing got me through childhood, and more recently, it got me through breast cancer.
When I was diagnosed one month before my 40th birthday, my life stopped for a couple of days, and then for the next few weeks, it sped up with that breathless schedule of doctor’s appointments and tests and second opinions and fights with insurance companies and conversations with family and planning for what was to come. I felt a fear I’d never known before—the fear that I wouldn’t get to see my children grow up. I felt a gratitude I never would have expected in such times: what an outpouring of support from all corners of my life! I felt a strength that I didn’t know I had. And I felt a desperate need to write.
For days, because of the breathless schedule, I seemed unable to secure even ten minutes for myself. When I finally did, I snuck off to my bedroom much the same way I used to sneak off to my closet, and I poured the swirls of questions and emotion and logistics onto the page; and for the first time in almost two weeks, I felt like I could breath. It was like I turned myself inside out, hosed out the chaos, and then settled back into my bones for the first time since my diagnosis.
When I think about what helped carry me through the last year of grueling breast cancer treatment, I think about my amazing community of family and friends, and I think about my writing. (Okay, I also think about my couch and Netflix and anti-nausea meds, but mostly I think about my family, my friends and my writing.)
Cancer has been a transformative experience for me. Cancer turned my life upside down and turned me inside out in terrifying-exhilarating-inspiring ways. (Terrifying, of course, but yes, also exhilarating and inspiring.)
I know many people with a cancer diagnosis resent the notion that cancer could ever be a gift, and so I am self-conscious at times about talking and writing about my own experience in this way. Would I ever ask for breast cancer? No. Would I ever wish breast cancer on another? No. But neither can I say I would wish it all away at this point, because in many ways, my diagnosis propelled me forward. (That said, at least for the time being, it looks like cancer is not going to take me from my children before they are grown, which of course is not the case for far too many women with a breast cancer diagnosis. So in different shoes, I imagine I would wish it all away.)
In her beautifully inspiring book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
…surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you.
The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living.
When I talk about “creative living” here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts… I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.
I am three months out of treatment and deeply immersed in exploring who I really am, who I want to be and what kind of life I want to live now that I have faced death in a way that many people don’t until they are much older than I am. Writing allows me to do this work—it allows me to do this terrifying-exhilarating-inspiring exploration. (So do many other things, like: privilege; a wise therapist and equally wise friends; an off-the-charts supportive husband; parents who encourage me to find and follow my passion; children who make me want to unearth and model my very best self.) Writing is how I make sense of my insides. Writing is how I make sense of the world around me. Writing is how I come home to myself and also how I put myself out into the world.
Writing is how I find my buried treasure, and since my breast cancer diagnosis, I am more committed and curious than ever in the dig.
© Jenny Binh Bender, 2015
I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.
– Billy Joel
‘The hills are alive, with the sound of music!’ Picture, if you will, Julie Andrews running, open armed, with gay abandon, across buttercup spotted rolling meadows, telling the world (or at least half of Saltzburg) how her ‘heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds and sing every song it hears’. Music has been a powerful art form since records began. Think of your favourite song. Is it rock or classical? Does it make you feel happy, emotional or just like kicking off your shoes and dancing madly around the room never mind who is watching?
Music as Therapy
Music can pick us up and calm us down, it can heal and soothe, it can fuel wars and end animosity. There are pages of research about music as therapy. Great activists like Pete Seeger, a pioneer who used music to influence major change in society and mental health and wellbeing in the sixites, encouraged many professionals to continue improving public health through use of this tool. As Obama said on his death;
‘He believed in the power of song to bring social change’.
In one of her many books, the PMA guru, Gabrielle Bernstein, encourages readers to make a positive perception playlist. You may have already noticed but I have added a page to Samspaces called A Space To Listen where I do just that. My aim was to share the tracks that have helped inspire and encourage me, but I want to explore how and why we find this art form so therapeutic too. I also want to use this opportunity to take a huge step out of my comfort zone and illustrate how singing has been such a huge healing tool for me.
Music has been widely researched as having numerous health benefits. In an article called ‘Mozart as Medicine’, James Clear researches the specific ways music can help with illness;
‘Music therapy is a burgeoning field. Those who become certified music therapists are accomplished musicians who have deep knowledge of how music can evoke emotional responses to relax or stimulate people, or help them heal.’
– Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, November 5th 2015
The benefits of music as a therapy include relieving pain for patients post surgery, boosting immune system functions by decreasing stress hormones and increasing growth hormones. It has also been linked to happiness by stimulating the same areas of the brain that trigger joy in other activities such as humour and foods. After my first ever PET scan, we were mid house move and after getting back from the hospital, I turned on the TV and ‘Footloose’ was on. When my husband got home from the supermarket, rather than lying down and resting, he found me dancing around the kitchen packing boxes! Maybe it was the effects of the radioactive glucose but that song always gives me the boogie bug and I felt rejuvenated from the inside out.
So, does music really have the ability to relieve stress and anxiety? Listening to my iPod during chemo helped me tune out and connect with a calmer me. While the rest of my body was revolting like an exhausted army sitting on its heels and refusing to fight another battle, my little beacon of calm, right in my solar plexus, would be sparked like a flame when I heard certain music so I was not surprised to learn that music therapy can help reduce heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.
‘If music makes you happy, then it might be possible that it is good for your health’
Mozart as Medicine: the Health Benefits of Music by James Clear
One lady I have been introduced to recently, Catherine Rannus, uses music (and exceptional talent) to produce the most beautiful melodies to help health and wellbeing;
‘I had the idea to use my voice as the main instrument….. and since stumbling across the research suggesting that our energy resonates with certain notes and frequencies I was compelled to write my first album.”
– Catherine Rannus
Catherine wrote her first album, Belightful Music, which is now used by many therapists to aid healing in treatments such as reiki, reflexology, and massage. I know a lot of people who have it in the background when they cant sleep, or when they are working to aid concentration too. The link below should take you to a taster of her music;
Catherine believes that when our mind and body are in harmony everything functions as it should and she has found her music to treat patients with common ailments to more serious conditions like heart disease with great success.
Singing your heart out
Not only has music been a huge influence on my wellbeing but so has my love of singing. Using my voice has been an incredible meditative tool that has helped my confidence and creativity. In Psychologies Magazine, a group of women were interviewed about what helped them during challenging times. Amanda Greatorex said that song writing helped her through her husbands death because;
‘It is healing for me to take a situation and almost boil down an idea over months, like alchemy, to a pure five minute song.’
Amanda Greatorex, Psychologies Magazine August 2015
Music gives our voice a vehicle and helps us connect to experiences we sometimes cant make sense of. It can be easier to express our true feelings through singing and song writing than talking face to face to someone. It gives us a creative channel to express our inner most thoughts and feelings, promoting empathy.
Lyrics such as ‘Doesn’t take a genius to realise that sometimes life is hard’ can immediately resonate. Connecting with a specific song can be like a heavy fog lifting. The lyrics of ‘Heal Over’ by KT Tunstall have always struck a chord (pardon the pun) with me, so when a great friend asked if he could record me singing it, I jumped at the chance.
The sound file below was recorded last year, before I found my amazing new singing teacher, Brijitte. I have sung all my life, in choirs, at school as well as for fun at friends weddings and parties, but I was itching to get back into a regular practice, especially after my third diagnosis. I knew it would bring me some calm through focusing on my breathing and the vocal practice would help my spirit soar. I got such a kick from doing it. When I met Brijitte I struck gold. Not only is she an amazing singer but she has also done a counselling course and knew instantly how much I needed to do this to help my own healing process on a totally different level.
‘My singing lessons focus on the student getting to know their own voice so in a way it’s like guiding someone to a deeper understanding of their own being.’
– Brijitte Dreyfuss
Through Brijitte’s teaching, I am gradually uncovering a richer, stronger voice. I didn’t realise how fearful I was of certain aspects of singing and how that was affecting my tone and performance. It is like learning a new language. Breathing is key and I have accessed a way of centring myself and recognising what a spiritual process singing can be.
When James sent the recorded version of Heal Over, I decided to put it up here, not just to share the amazing lyrics and offer my solidarity to those who had also been through something challenging, but with the intention of rerecording it in a few months time and posting it here to illustrate the difference that can be made by finding something you are truly passionate about and the love of working on that.
Music for the Soul
Despite my love of music and singing, and all the research to support its healing powers, there is the other side of the coin, that music is no better than other alternatives such as exercise, meditation and holistic therapies. There are also those who have found that during treatment, their love of music was diminished and replaced by a preference for silence. I can understand that, as the peace and stillness in silence is deeply healing too. There is a huge amount to be said for silent retreats and listening to natural sounds.
Personally, I believe a little bit of everything does you good and if music can be another tool in the box, we should use it! I met another amazing lady at a talk in London, who bravely stood up in front of a room of strangers, to vouch how she had found her voice again after a traumatic childhood and during thirteen years of recovery. Nadine is now an opera singer and empowerment coach;
‘I have come to embrace that ‘my voice’ is not just about singing…It is here to support others through change and allow them to be heard…my voice is in my writing and the words I speak.’
– Nadine Benjamin
She reinforced to me, that the benefits of using anything we love, to help us in times of adversity, are second to none. Music can unveil a strength inside us we never knew and reconnect us to an inner spirit. It is a totally non invasive therapy and with social media today, it is inexpensive, convenient and portable. Healing and music go together hand in hand;
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
So, with that in mind, the next time you see me running across buttercup spotted meadows with my arms wide open, wearing a pinnafore, you would be forgiven for thinking, that just like Maria, music is definitely one of my ‘favourite things’!
Details for Catherine Rannus and Brijitte Dreyfus are all listed on the Space to Learn directory page.
The attached sound file was composed and recorded by James Hughes.
Nadine Benjamin can be found at nadinebenjamin.com
Pros and Cons of Being BC's Next Top Model!
Confidence building and liberating
You can take a friend for support
It is often free for breast cancer patients. (You only pay for the photos and make up with Gemma but not sure about others)
Can do at any point during recovery
You get your make up done professionally
You can let your inner model free!
It is a fantastic day out
Distance to travel
Can feel intimidating and scary
Having a picture taken of myself, at any time, is not ideal! Having a picture taken of myself, four months after major surgery, in a perfect strangers home, half naked, seemed insane! However, whilst lying in bed recovering from my mastectomy and reconstruction, I decided that it might be fun to nip any self conscious or inadequate feelings of self image, in the bud, as soon as possible and book a boudoir photography session with a friend of a friend. Clearly, the drugs had affected me more than I realised!
I had heard of Gemma’s boudoir photography for breast cancer patients on Facebook and through a friend. She kindly forwarded me her details and while taking a break from back to back episodes of The Good Wife on Netflix while convalescing, I sent her a message explaining my situation. Gemma’s reply was sensitive, positive and full of encouragement so I thought, what better way of treating myself, than a day trip to her Salisbury home and studio, a make over and a few glamorous pics of me to stash away and giggle over with friends! What the hell?
Gemma is herself a breast cancer survivor. She fell into photography once she had sold her and her husbands web development company following the birth of her second child and she realised she needed something more flexible.
‘Building relationships with the ladies and families I photograph is at the core of what makes my job so fulfilling, and knowing that I’m providing them with memories that will last a lifetime gives me a great sense of satisfaction’.
– Gemma Brunton
Excitement soon turned to full on fear and a few days beforehand I was having serious second thoughts! I emailed Gemma in a flap asking if we could perhaps lean more on the side of cosy knitwear than lingerie since that was slightly more ‘me’! Plus, I had way more chunky cardigans and knitted jumpers than I did neglige’s and high heels! Once again, her reply was so reassuring and she put me at ease straight away, telling me it would not be rushed and we wouldn’t do anything I didn’t feel comfortable with. I am not sure she knew how comfortable I would be with just a cup of tea and a chat!
It was pouring with rain that day but I drove down to Salisbury and after a few three point turns in various neighbouring driveways, I found my way to Gemma’s beautiful farmhouse. It was a stunning set up and as I threw a coat over my head and ran for the door of the barn outside, where she has set up her studio, I rather fancied myself as some model turning up for a Vogue shoot!!!
Gemma offers this service to breast cancer patients for free. I had to pay for the make up artist who was already there, but she quickly set to work (we needed a lot of time!) and magically transformed me into a natural, glowing woman I frankly didn’t recognise! Gemma and I then went through the wardrobe selection, mine and hers! Again, I twittered on about my preference for cosy and safe rather than seducing and sexy but Gemma managed to pull a couple of bits out (between the feather bowers and silk all in ones, I was having a hard time calming the nerves!) but again, she reassured me she would guide me through it step by step. We were going to do the shoot with some of the rooms in her house as a backdrop so, after she had decided on a few garments, we crossed over to her back door and went into the sitting room.
Gemma’s house is beautiful and very homely so looking around their cosy family room, I immediately had a sense of calm. In here, we did a set up on the sofa with me, well, pretty much naked, expect for a pair of pants, and my favourite electric blue poncho! As I sat on the arm of the sofa, staring out of the window, trying my hardest to look demure and sexy, (rather than scared stiff and frowning because I kept slipping down the fur throw that was draped so beautifully on the arm of the sofa!) I listened to Gemma’s instructions and did my best to follow. It was not easy, that kind of ‘look’ is certainly not natural for me, but she was great at making me laugh so I just kept to the ‘natural’ script as best I could, whilst trying not to crack up!
As the goose bumps began to take control, we moved upstairs to one of the bedrooms which looked like something out of a Laura Ashley catalogue. It was all very neutral and classically done. With a sigh of relief I was allowed to put my favourite grey cardigan on, as well as my very comfy knitted socks. These items had real meaning for me since I had lived in them during my convalescing and I loved the idea of being able to use them in a more glamorous way now. Gemma asked me to sit on the large windowsill and look out the window. This was more like it! I started feeling a lot more natural and Gemma and I chatted as the camera snapped away, without my even noticing!
Knowing Gemma had been through breast cancer too and knew the anxieties and insecurities that an illness and the side effects of that, can bring, made me feel so much more at ease. As we nattered away from that rainy windowsill, I asked Gemma why she thought this boudoir style photography might help people after breast cancer.
‘I realised that I could put my photography skills to good use by offering boudoir-style portrait sessions to ladies going through a similar tough time with how their treatment has robbed them of feeling feminine and desirable, with the hope that it would help them see themselves in a different light. The emotional healing is something that I feel often gets overlooked, and hopefully what I do helps in some small way.’
– Gemma Brunton
To stop me getting too comfortable, we moved into a room next door and this time Gemma pushed me way out of my ‘comfort zone’, by putting me in my see through black evening top! Eek! I was only used to wearing this with a pair of jeans and a black vest underneath! She was going for a silhouette shape and asked me to stand in front of the window to get the best light. Once we had manipulated my arm into what felt like a rather unnatural position, Gemma squealed with delight! Clearly I was doing something right and a bit of professional lighting does wonders!
Just as I thought we were done, Gemma went in for the kill and asked me if I would like to go topless. This was a big deal! Jordan I most certainly was not, but since we had got this far and I had begun to trust her implicitly, I thought it was now or never. Thinking of everything I had been through previously, this was a moment to go for all guns blazing. I asked myself honestly, when would I be brave enough to do this again?
Gemma lay me on the bed and positioned me so the photos would be modest and tasteful. As weird and vulnerable as I did feel on the one hand, I also felt strangely brave and proud. I would never have done this had it not been for being unwell. The scars tell a story and when photographed like this, I knew I would treasure their meaning so much more than when staring at them in the mirror in my own bathroom, automatically seeing them as imperfections! I didn’t want to glorify it or make it sound like an excuse, but I was finally seeing some sort of positive to it all. I realised that something like this gave me something to see, something to hold in my hand and concrete proof that I was OK and I could look pretty OK too (with a little help!)
Gemma is one amazing lady. Aside from portrait photography she works for a couple of charities too and was recently asked by her local district hospital to help raise funds for a dedicated breast cancer unit.
‘I had the opportunity to photograph a Firefighter’s calendar last year, which was masses of fun and also raised lots of money towards the project – and I just heard to today that they’ve reached their target and building will commence soon – I’m so happy to have been a part of that (and lets be honest, there are worse subjects I could have been asked to photograph!)’
– Gemma Brunton
Knowing her wealth of experience working with other women, as well as being another survivor, helped me relax so much and more importantly, enjoy myself. This was my time, something for me, by me.
As I sat, stood, lay and was literally draped around Gemma’s furniture and gorgeous home, I smiled. Who would have thought that breast cancer would have made me do something as mad as this? Who would have thought how much I would have got out of it too?! Not just photos to give me a confidence boost when I needed one and have to show my daughter how proud we should be of our femininity, no matter what, but a new friend and a space to shine. Now thats something special and a pretty positive picture of recovery x