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Pain behind the passion


Art therapy — Bridget Weir with some of her work at the Ulster Cancer Foundation’s Emotions exhibition in Belfast

Art therapy — Bridget Weir with some of her work at the Ulster Cancer Foundation’s Emotions exhibition in Belfast

Matt Mackey

Picture perfect — Nathan Asiimwe at the Emotions Exhibition with
BBC NI’s Donna Traynor, Liz Atkinson, Ulster Cancer Foundation and
his wife Annmarie and children Grace and Joy

Picture perfect — Nathan Asiimwe at the Emotions Exhibition with BBC NI’s Donna Traynor, Liz Atkinson, Ulster Cancer Foundation and his wife Annmarie and children Grace and Joy

Art therapy — Bridget Weir with some of her work at the Ulster Cancer Foundation’s Emotions exhibition in Belfast

The painting ‘Fear and Anguish Gone’ could be an Impressionist masterpiece straight from the walls of The Louvre in Paris, but the story behind it is somewhat different — a story of tragedy and triumph, of pain and joy.

It was painted by Bridget Weir, from Lisburn, and forms part of an Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) exhibition to celebrate the organisation’s 40th anniversary. A collection of writings and artwork form the show — all completed by people who have had cancer.

Bridget, who has three pieces on display, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2009 and after her treatment she attended art therapy with UCF.

She says: “The stress and worry of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment had taken a physical and emotional toll on my body. I was depressed and I couldn’t collate my thoughts. I knew that I needed to act quickly to get myself back on track. UCF’s art therapy service was my saving grace.

“Joanne, UCF’s art therapist, put me at ease and helped me to translate my emotions onto paper. Creating splashes of colour was very relaxing and I could freely express my feelings without having to talk about them.

“When you are diagnosed with cancer it takes your future away but art therapy is a simple process which helps you focus on today. It takes you out of the hospital environment and into a calm place. It was a very bright light at the end of a dark tunnel. It helped me come out the other side, re-energised and ready to plan ahead.”

Another cancer survivor, Nathan Asiimwe, took part in creative writing and found that his healing process was helped by putting his thoughts into poetry.

He’d been diagnosed with cancer twice and felt angry, frustrated and discouraged by life, but he says the classes were “a ray of light which gave me hope during a dark and turbulent time”.

Liz Atkinson, Head of Care Services, UCF adds: “We are really excited about holding our first ‘Emotions Exhibition’. All the exhibits have been created by people who have used UCF’s art therapy and creative writing services.

“We know that cancer affects everyone differently, however research shows that creating, through art and writing, can help maintain or even improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. The creative process can help people communicate anxiety and unlock concerns about cancer and the future.”

An ‘Emotions’ book of artwork and writing which explores themes including hope, loss of identity, abandonment, release, anger, hurt and fighting spirit is on sale at the exhibition for an introductory price of £5 or to order a copy call UC, tel: 9066 3281 with all proceeds in aid of UCF.

The ‘Emotions Exhibition’ runs until Saturday (today and tomorrow, 10am-8pm; Sat, 10am-1pm) at UCF’s Service Centre, 40-44 Eglantine Avenue, Belfast. Admission free. UCF’s art therapy and creative writing services are available free of charge in venues across NI. For further info, tel UCF’s Care Services team on 028 9066 3281 or go to www.ulstercancer.org

Nathan Asiimwe lives in Banbridge with his wife Annmarie and their children Grace (6) and Joy (3). He says:

“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer twice and know what it is to hit rock bottom. But the creative writing classes at the Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) were a ray of light which gave me hope during a dark and turbulent time.

After my first diagnosis, in 2003, I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. The doctors said that the cancer I had was almost incurable and offered me the most intense treatment they had. They asked if I wanted it, knowing that it would be gruelling, and I said yes.

Halfway through the course of radiotherapy I noticed that my hands and nails were darker, and even my tongue. It wasn’t as noticeable as it would be in a white person, but it meant that my skin was feeling the effects of the severe treatment. One morning I woke up and my skin was all raw, and the pain was horrendous.

It really hit me hard but my wife was there for me 24/7 — she was a wonderful support.

It was really sad because before the first cancer we’d been trying for some years to have a baby but then Grace was born. So my emotions were high, because we had a new baby, but they came crashing down when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was told I wouldn’t be able to have more children, which was another blow because I wanted Grace to have a brother or sister. But a miracle occurred because Joy was born. She’s known as the miracle baby.

Then a further blow came when I was diagnosed with another, totally different cancer. They told me that out of 100 people treated for this, 50 die and 50 survive. My wife and I looked at each other and we both had the same thought – which group would I belong to?

My dreams had been shattered, I thought then. I’d come as a missionary to Northern Ireland and met my wife who is from Limerick.

Cancer doesn’t just affect the body, it affects the mind too, the whole human being.

A friend of mine told me about a UCF meeting in Belfast and it was wonderful. I realised that this organisation had so much to offer – I’d been suffering on my own. I found out about the creative writing course and it was so interesting to meet the other patients.

Some people who face a life threatening disease ask ‘why me?’ but through UCF I met people who were survivors, upbeat, optimistic about life.

UCF taught me about creative writing, writing from your experiences. They’re really great people and doing wonderful work.

I had my last treatment in 2007, and recently got the news that I’m in remission from my first cancer. On my birthday 2008, something special happened to me. My family and friends were singing ‘happy birthday’, and I thought ‘I’m alive today!’. I realised that I mustn’t worry about the past, but enjoy today, to feel alive and happy right now.”

Bridget Weir (62), lives in Lisburn with husband John and they have five children, John, Michaela, Barry, Orlagh and Katie, and one granddaughter, Anneliese. She says:

“When you are diagnosed with cancer it takes your future away. But art therapy is a simple process which helps you focus on today — and the classes I took through the Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) really helped me to see light at the end of the tunnel.

I hadn’t noticed anything wrong. I’d just gone for my normal mammogram and the cancer was picked up through that. I couldn’t believe it. I’m fit, I enjoy walking, don’t smoke and am a very occasional drinker.

I’ll never forget the day I was diagnosed. Unfortunately I had to have my breast removed because it was an invasive cancer. I didn’t have any treatment; they just removed the whole lot through surgery.

It was horrendous. You are at your most vulnerable. I was devastated that as a woman I was losing part of my personality.

However, the worst part wasn’t the diagnosis, it was telling my family and seeing the devastation on their faces. You think, ‘How can I fix this?’ But you can’t.

Then, I heard about the UCF classes. It was through this and the medium of art that I learned slowly and surely to have a future again, to plan, even if it was only going to a class one afternoon a week.

After a diagnosis of cancer your confidence is completely gone, both as a woman and as a person in general. But the people at UCF explained very gently how you shouldn’t have so many expectations on yourself, that it’s ok to feel how you do.

They encouraged us to just sit down and paint — to just ‘be’. I didn’t have to think of the cancer, how I was going to mend things for my family, what hospital appointments I had. I just allowed my emotions to come out. Over six months, I regained my confidence.

Going to the classes helped me go back to work within the space of time that I did — I’d been lifted out of a very dark place. Through the UCF I got to the stage where I was looking forward to going out instead of being afraid to do so. I was looking forward to the class, the quietness of painting.

The scene I painted in ‘Fear and Anguish Gone’ represents the only place I wanted to be — somewhere blue, with no one else but me, no cancer.

“It’s somewhere I associated with being safe as a child, a field on a sunny day. When you complete your first painting there is a release of emotions and stress.

The fear goes, the tension goes. The uncertainty is still there but the fear is the biggest emotion. It’s a wonderful feeling when it lifts.

And now, I can plan things — before I wasn’t able to think about the future. The UCF are wonderful people. Walking through the doors of the classroom, you realise you’re in a very special place.

I’ve often said it’s a place where only angels live.

They encourage you to get a routine back in your life. You only need one small routine, and you eventually get the rest going.

When you get cancer, you’re a different person. I’m different now. I’m a nicer person. I can also say that I think my family and I have gained a lot from my cancer.

There has been a lot of good come out of it. And I’ve started to paint again!”

Belfast Telegraph