Glioblastoma. It's a scary and ugly word that you do not want staring you in the face. It has the power to wreck your life, as it has mine.
Glioblastoma is the name of the worst kind of brain cancer the world knows. Like a horror movie villain, it returns time and again, growing meaner, faster and more determined with each appearance. Every day, 27 Canadians are diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. On April 7 of this year, 26 of them were strangers to me. The one who wasn't, the one whose text message -- "please come home ...I have the bad brain cancer" -- is seared into my memory like the deepest of scars, the one whose eyes I've sought for strength, resolve, security and acceptance for two decades, is my wife.
We lost plenty in the moment she learned her diagnosis from a doctor's phone call. Every dream, every ambition, every carefully cultivated plan, all at risk with a singular grim prognosis that brought with it a terror that may never shrink. She and I think about "it" constantly, speaking about the illness even when we promise we won't. It awakens us from a dream, breaks up a pleasant thought by sending a shiver of reality through the bones. We attempt to reduce its power by not calling it by name, labelling it her "condition" or her "cold" instead. "Cancer" is too depressing; "glioblastoma" far too frightening to speak.
We seek knowledge to protect and guide us. Cancer-fighting foods, meditation and yoga-based exercise regimens are among the weapons with which we wage battle.
Art, too, has helped. Julia's ability to express herself through photography and mixed media is a distraction at the least and a kind of therapy at its best. Thanks to the British Columbia Cancer Agency (BCCA), brain cancer patients such as Julia have the opportunity this month to showcase their artistic abilities while also raising awareness about the disease. From October 7-13, the work of 22 artists will be displayed at the Visual Space Gallery in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood. It is the first art show undertaken by BCCA.
"We don't hear enough about brain cancer. The only time anyone usually ever hears the word "glioblastoma" is after they learn they have the disease," says Rosemary Cashman, the nurse practitioner at BCCA who helped organize the show. "The problem is that brain tumours make up only two per cent of the cancer population and they don't get the attention -- or the money needed to fight them -- we would like. So we're trying to raise awareness about them."
The week-long exhibition called "Brain Cancer Got Me Thinking" was conceived and implemented by BCCA's Patient Family Advisory Council, which is is composed of patients with brain tumours and their family members. Cashman is also one of the council's chairpersons. The Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada also helped with some funding.
"Rather than an information day, or some such event, we wanted to highlight the creativity and resilience of those affected by this diagnosis," she says. "We learn so much from the patients. They are so much more than this disease, so much more than just patients, and you can see that in the artwork."
While the profits from the sales will not go directly to charity (40 per cent goes to the gallery and 60 per cent to the artists), it is an opportunity to tell the story of how people use creative expression to help them cope with such a devastating disease. In so doing, it may spark charitable donations or other awareness-building initiatives.
Visitors to the show, which coincides with Brain Tumour Awareness Month, will see 30 pieces from anyone touched by the disease, including survivors and their family members. Among the work displayed will be three photographs from Julia and one prose poem/photograph from me; we will donate any profit from the sale of our work to cancer-fighting charities.
Glioblastoma is such a deadly disease because the cancer cells can spread like tentacles throughout the brain and move quickly to overtake healthy brain cells. One of the greatest challenges for those of us who have do combat the disease is to learn again to skip happily through life's moments while knowing we are tiptoeing on the ultimate precipice.
For Julia's birthday, I drove her from Vancouver to Tofino on the Pacific coast of Canada. We boarded a fishing boat that promised us a ride that would reap hundreds of delectable BC spot prawns straight from the sea. The boat left the dock on the wet morning to carry us through Clayoquot Sound, a waterway guarded by specks of verdant islands thick with old-growth trees. Our guide would halt the engine every few hundred metres in order to pull up one prawn trap after another after another. The first was empty, the second one too. The third had a lonely creature sticking to the twine. In all, the bounty of the two-hour sail netted six quivering prawns and a bucket of jokes about our charter's poor luck. Through it, Julia clung to her camera and photographed with the intent she always has, capturing through her lens eagles descending the sky, a lustrous fog blanketing the hills, our beleaguered boat captain pondering his next move. Despite the frustration with the prawns, she saw opportunity to salvage the trip. Amid the gloom of the west coast rain, she laughed, knowing warmth awaited on shore, along with an abundance of minutes to explore on that precious day.
MORE INFO: Visit the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada website for additional details on the art show, including a video of all the artwork that was submitted and information on how the pieces were selected. As well, you will find resources that can help individuals and families who are fighting the disease.
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