Imagine having no symptoms other than 2 tiny spots of postmenopausal bleeding a month apart. I called my gynecologist, who ordered a vaginal ultrasound, and I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer (meaning it had spread outside the abdominal cavity). Only 10 days later, I had major surgery, and when I awakened, I was told I had a 25% to 33% chance of living 5 years. That was in July 2008.
So despite having no history of cancer in my family, I received this diagnosis and prognosis. I was thrown completely off balance! My initial response was numbness, and then depression. Finally, I decided to fight the “death sentence” I had been given by writing, practicing my self-taught art (painting), and pursuing advocacy about my journey with ovarian cancer.
Finding The Right Outlets
Because I had been an English and women’s studies professor in the past, initially I used the first familiar tool I could—writing. I wrote an informal journal telling my husband, family, and friends how I felt. In some ways, as the chemo killed my cancer cells, it also tried to kill the spirit in me; however, even with my depression, I began to paint more assertively, even though I am a self-taught painter.
Remembering who I’d been before my cancer diagnosis—first a registered nurse and then a confident professional woman—I watched a new woman creep into my paintings. Thus, my twin, Althea, was born. The image I saw and painted was a wacky, unsteady woman balancing on a tightrope. She became dominant and visible for all to see. I chose the name Althea because it starts with an “A” like my name, and because it comes from the Greek word that means “self-healer.”
I knew that if I were to enjoy life, I had to meet my life as it is now on my own terms—Althea’s terms—with courage and verve. So I dropped the mask of silence and put on another mask, by creating an alter ego, Althea, to speak for me about my bitterness at having cancer. She was warm, loud, brash, in-your-face, and spontaneous, but also humorous in how she dealt with the familiar experiences of nearly all cancer survivors.
I was slinging paint madly as a way of expressing and alleviating my anger. I painted “my feelings” using the teal tart Althea as my subject. She dresses like a tramp, has no hair (like me after chemo) but feathers instead, and often speaks abruptly and without thought as she tries to keep her balance in life after chemotherapy.
After I completed the 18 months of chemo, I started to paint my feelings using Althea as my voice. She looks as terrified of falling off the balance beam as I was, knowing that I had to regain some balance in my life.
As time passed, I watched fellow cancer survivors die, and I began to feel survivor’s guilt for my good fortune of not having cancer recurring even after 5 years. I was very grateful, and painted one of my happiest paintings—“Dancing with Ned” (meaning “no evidence of disease”).
To reduce my guilt, I planned things I could do to help other survivors. I self-published 2 books, Althea Re-Balances Her Life: The Emotional Challenge One Survivor Faces After Chemo for Ovarian Cancer, and Dancing Joyfully, With or Without NED: A Blueprint Using Art to Survive Ovarian Cancer. I gave the Colorado Ovarian Cancer Alliance permission to print 2000 copies of the first book, and I give it away free of charge to every Colorado woman who has surgery and chemo for ovarian cancer.
Both books are also available online (www.clearityfoundation.org), and all monies earned go to The Clearity Foundation, because I had my tumor analyzed by that organization 2 years after my surgery.
They matched my molecular profile to the available drugs, and recommended the drug that would work best for me—Avastin (bevacizumab). How fortunate for me! Consequently, I believe in their work.
We don’t yet know why my cancer remained in remission, whether it was the Avastin, or a gene that mediates chemo drugs in the liver, or just plain luck. I hope that soon scientists will be able to tell me, but until that time, I live each day to its fullest, trying to find something to laugh about daily.
Finding My Voice
I like to think that writing, painting, and advocacy have helped my immune system stay healthy. I know that writing about and painting Althea has helped my emotional and mental health.
With the time I have left in my life, my intent is to share the newest information with ovarian cancer survivors and encourage them to find their personal ways to cope. I want to make the absolute best out of the worst situation I’ve encountered in my life!
To read more work and connect with Annette McElhiney, please visit or register for the Clearity Portal by clicking here.