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Cancer Focus NI wants patients to get creative: Fighting fear with the power of the written word

Louise and Jackie have cancer and have been told there is no cure. As doctors fight their illness with treatment the women are fighting fear and anger with the power of the written word

By Marie Foy

A local cancer charity wants patients to get creative. Two brave women who are battling cancer are feeling the benefits.

Therapy - not for you? Well, think again.

There are many different types - and the right one can do a lot to help you feel and cope better in tough times

Therapies can help you relax and lower your stress levels - not a bad thing even at the best of times. They can calm your emotions, relieve anxiety and improve your general sense of health and wellbeing. What's not to like?

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland has a number of valuable, free, therapeutic services to support patients both during and after their treatment.

"The best known is counselling," says charity spokesperson Liz Atkinson. "Patients tell us that it helps to unload their worries, fears and thoughts to someone outside their family and friends, because they don't want to trouble their loved ones more than necessary.

"Not everyone wants to talk, though, but another good therapy is writing, and we offer various workshops to help you express your emotions through words. For example, our most recent creative writing group was working on their memoirs. Or you can write something that's more like keeping a diary. It's all very confidential, and you don't have to worry about spelling and punctuation," she says.

"We also have art therapy, and again you need no experience - you can draw, paint or do some felting, whatever you fancy. And art journalling combines writing and art.

"These therapies help you take a more active role in your treatment and recovery, and some patients use them to making them feel positive and hopeful for the future. We're here to help them do that."

We talk to two women who are benefiting from Cancer Focus NI's therapies.

‘I was so scared and in a very dark place’

Louise Gough (36), from Belfast, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012. Her cancer has come back for a third time and she's pinning her hopes on her very last cycle of chemotherapy - but keeps on smiling. The young mum is married to Mark and they have two boys, Darren (13) and Tony (9).

She says: 'Mark was devastated when I was diagnosed but it just didn't register with me.

The surgeon didn't sugar coat anything.

He started to talk about life expectancy but I stopped him in his tracks. I didn't want to hear that - I said if there was anything they could do to help me, just do it.

I had an operation to remove the tumour in my bowel and then 12 cycles of chemotherapy over six months.

Two years ago, I had surgery on tumours in my liver.

I was very upbeat, I'm a strong, cup-half-full sort of person. As long as the doctors were saying there was a chance, I was determined to plough on.

Then, I had another operation on my gall bladder and spleen, which was touch and go. I hit a brick wall, I just couldn't get back on my feet as quickly as before.

Everything was okay for a while, but then scans showed spots on my lungs and stomach. I had to have chemo again - but this will be my last round. It needs to work this time.

I feel that I need to speak to a counsellor, both for myself and because I don't want to overburden my loved ones.

I needed answers to help my family. My body wasn't the one I used to know so well, I was so scared and in a dark place. I just wanted to scream 'help' for as long and as loud as I possibly could.

The counsellor helps me understand that my thoughts are normal and to look at things in a different way, talking about the issues gives me guidance and strength, it helps me let the old Louise go and accept the new Louise.

I've also tried the charity's Writing My Cancer Journey sessions, which helped me express what was in my heart and mind. And I've made important new friends who are going through similar experiences.

I found I could write things I didn't think I was capable of. It has helped rebuild my confidence and look at things in a new way. Other patients have told me that they look at cancer as a gift - that it has changed their outlook on life, and this attitude has helped me deal with everything I've been going through.

I have a genuine smile and I'm forever the optimist, but a realist, too.

As soon as a negative thought pops into my head, I get rid of it and enjoy what I have now."

‘I vented my anger on paper after a bad hospital trip ... I was able to get it out of my system and then move on’

Jackie Stevenson (50), from Belfast is upbeat and in fighting spirit in the face of terminal cancer. She is married to Gary and has a daughter, Karen (24), and a son, Michael (20).

She says: I was 44 when I found a lump in my breast and was referred for tests very quickly by my GP. I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, then for a few years I was cancer free.

Unfortunately, the cancer returned three years later and there’s no cure. I have triple negative breast cancer, which can’t be treated with hormonal therapy or Herceptin.

I’ve been through four different cycles of chemo. It’s a game of chance trying different chemos and most recently my oncologist agreed to try a treatment that is normally used for lung cancer. The tumours are shrinking but only slowly, and I had the eighth and final treatment just recently.

Getting cancer was a shock, but finding out that it had recurred was a much bigger blow and harder to come to terms with. The second time around, a CT scan showed that one tumour on my neck had spread to other parts of my lymph system. I could barely believe it when I was told it was terminal. It’s not a word I like to use — I look at myself as being ‘critical’. I’m still here and still fighting, and will while there are treatments available for me.

When I was diagnosed the first time, I told myself I can get through this and get back to work, that I’d be fine. I isolated myself and didn’t seek help or support. After I’d had all the treatment, I wasn’t in a bad place, though I’d been told there was a chance of the cancer recurring.

It was when I got my secondary diagnosis in November 2012 that I needed support. I was looking at the prospect of only surviving a few months and I felt lost. I’ve an excellent family, they’re fantastic and a real support, and I’ve wonderful friends. But unless you’ve experienced cancer you don’t really know isolation, and there’s a part of me that wants to protect them from this.

I had never done writing or art therapy before but I thought, why not? I was extremely nervous at the first Cancer Focus NI writing group. I was in a room full of people of different ages, with different stories to tell — but the one thing we had in common was cancer. I didn’t have to explain myself.

I was pretty angry at the way things had turned out for me, but the group helped me release pent up feelings I didn’t even realise I had. I remember venting my rage on paper after one bad hospital experience — it was out of my system, I was able to forget about it and move on.

We have ground rules, which we all agree to, and our focus is always on fun.

Sometimes we share what we’ve written, sometimes we don’t — there’s no pressure and it’s all in the strictest confidence.

It’s been a breath of fresh air and a haven of security. I’ve made really good friends and there’s terrific camaraderie.

I’ve also done art therapy, which was fantastic. You can work in any medium. I started with watercolours and switched to felting, which I really enjoyed — I’m very crafty anyway and love knitting and making things.

I’d really recommend anyone who’s going through a bad time to try Cancer Focus NI’s therapies. We all need that extra emotional support from somewhere.

I just can’t praise them enough, they’re worth their weight in gold for the relief they give you and are definitely good for the soul. My husband says I’m always in much better form afterwards. My time is precious, but this is time that I’m definitely spending well.”

‘They’ve helped me to be more positive’

Cancer survivor Glynis Bushe (59), from Antrim, says the therapies provided by Cancer Focus NI helped her deal with the darkest days of her illness. Glynis, who has a son, a daughter and five granddaughters, she says:

When I received my bowel cancer diagnosis I was devastated. I had to undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy initially to shrink the tumour. Then I had surgery to remove it and had a stoma created in June 2011.

I had a further set-back when I found out that the cancer had spread to a number of lymph nodes and I had to have another six months of chemotherapy.

Then I had a stoma reversal operation. Last year, I got the good news that there was no sign of the original cancer or of any new cancer, which was a huge relief.

It was largely thanks to Cancer Focus NI’s therapies that I was able to get on with living. The art therapy has been one of the highlights of my week — and you don’t have to be artistic to benefit from it.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating and life-changing and although I talked frankly and openly to my family and friends, I found the safe confidential environment of the group a great help.

I was able to discuss my fears and worries with other cancer sufferers, who understood exactly what I was going through. I’ve met many lovely people.

The group has helped me be more positive, improve my mood, get back on track and to get out of this ‘in limbo’ feeling.

I can’t stress enough the importance of having that extra support in place.”

Could it help you too?

The next creative writing workshop is on July 31, and art journalling is on September 4, October 2, November 6 and December 4, at Cancer Focus NI, 40-44 Eglantine Avenue, Belfast

To join art therapy in the north west, Armagh, Newry, Ballymoney and Cookstown email or you can also telephone 9066 3281

 Other services include:

Sing for Life choir (in partnership with Crescent Arts Centre)

Support groups


Beauty for Life

Dragon Boat paddling

Free confidential helpline .

tel: 0800 783 3339

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