A Breast Cancer Illness Narrative

a collection of artist books by Carol Pairaudeau will be on display at the NBCRC exhibition Breast Cancer & Me, Nottingham, 8-30 October 2022
My story

In February 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I recall spending the next few days informing friends and family, trying to find out the implications of still being on probation in a new job, and dealing with the practicalities of being booked in for surgery the following week. I did a big food shop, filled the freezer, and tried not to panic about how I would pay my mortgage if I no longer had employment.

It was a lot to take in and process, the terminology of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment was unfamiliar, and I was keen to be suitably informed for any decisions I might need to make. I turned to the information pages of a breast cancer support website and found the answers to several of my questions, but it was here that I found something that turned out to be much more valuable to me. On a thread of a breast cancer discussion forum, I connected with a group of women in the same scenario as me, all starting chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer during the same month. The tone of the discussion appealed to me – informative and supportive, and certainly not fuelled by self-pity. I introduced myself. Over the next few weeks and months, the members of this thread became close friends and provided valuable support to each other. We checked in daily, compared notes, and shared tips on how best to cope with the side effects of treatment. There was much laughter as well as the occasional melt-down. It was a safe space in which to share concerns that were difficult to voice to others.

A year later, several members of this group travelled from various parts of the UK to spend the weekend together, a pattern that was to be repeated several times over the coming years. Almost 10 years on and the friendship and support remain, although sadly there are lives which have been lost and some group members face further treatment.

The series of artist books that comprise A Breast Cancer Illness Narrative documents aspects of individual journeys as well as many shared experiences. Although the books were created a few years after treatment, they were made with the full support of the group, and I was able to refer to the original discussions to check facts and details as necessary.

Diagnosis - Dark Days
Six patients reveal, in their own words and handwriting, some of the inner, emotional turmoil triggered by the words “you have cancer”. Six threads hold the pages of the book together.
On the opposite side is a representation of the external world where the newly diagnosed patient must navigate the unfamiliar language of breast cancer. Words and phrases in different directions, sizes and type compete for the viewer’s attention.

Dark Days

Wide Local Excision
In this small, intimate book a sequence of words describes the simple facts of the situation, whilst on the reverse, a series of photographs reveal the reality of my breast cancer surgery. As my body began to heal the removed tissue was sent for analysis, and I awaited the results.

Wide Local Excision

Red Devil
Breast cancer chemotherapy usually involves a few drugs given in combination – a 'cocktail' of drugs. However, one injection which is red in colour, is frequently referred to as the Red Devil. Extending the idea further, this book presents a cocktail menu listing genuine cocktail drinks specially selected for the breast cancer patient. Other pages of the book observe, with some humour, the day-to-day life of a chemotherapy recipient from what might appear on your shopping list to some ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Chemo’.

Red Devil

Party on the Platform
As we neared the end of this long, and for some, particularly difficult leg of our journey, talk turned to the day we would alight from ‘the chemo train’ and gather for a ‘Party on the Platform’. Those finishing the journey first would wait on the platform for the others to arrive before the celebrations began. We found humour and entertainment in thinking of the most suitable songs to mark the occasion and so the party playlist was compiled. Quite fitting that when we did get to meet in person our meeting point was actually a station platform.

Party on the Platform

It’s Not All Black and White
For many of us surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were followed by hormone therapy and the symptoms of a chemically induced menopause – hot flashes, fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, headaches… Here, the usual patient information leaflet has been replaced with an alternative version.
The possibility that this tablet could keep you alive for longer was weighed up against 5-10 years of challenges to everyday living, and changes to work and lifestyle. The decision was not as simple as it might seem.

It's not all black and white