Thursday 23 May 2019

A positive frame

Artist Elizabeth Valentine was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, one year before her 50th birthday. She talks to Ciara Galvin about how she fought back with a positive outlook

By 2020, one in two people in Ireland will develop cancer during their lifetime.

For breast cancer survivor Elizabeth Valentine, she sees it as her duty to remind people to check themselves and take care of themselves, particularly women.

"Women do neglect themselves and neglect their breasts. They care about everyone else," Elizabeth told The Sligo Champion, at the specially constructed art space in Jonhston Court.

The shopping centre has donated one of its units to Elizabeth and fellow artists for the entire month in aid of Sligo Cancer Support.

The artist and poet who moved to Sligo in 2017 to be nearer her family says the space has already facilitated conversations about cancer.

"Everyone is affected by cancer at some stage of their lives," says Elizabeth, who is exhibitiing some of her paintings that were inspired by her breast cancer journey.

Diagnosed one year before her 50th birthday. Elizabeth firmly believes the age of breast screening should be drastically lowered from the current age of 50.

Remembering May 2016, Elizabeth tells of the crushing moment she discovered her lump.

She had not been feeling herself for awhile, and it was suggested to her by her doctor she could be depressed.

The healthy and active sports therapist knew deep down this wasn't the case, and her worst fears were realised when she found a large lump on her breast in May 2016.

Not wanting to worry her family, Elizabeth kept her finding secret from her family.

"I wanted to protect them. I was worried about my mother the most, and she surprised me, she was so strong."

Having never smoked or drank and being an exercise enthusiast, Elizabeth was told, 'This isn't your illness'.

The artist cites a positive mental attitude and help from above for her unprecedented response to treatment.

After just one round of chemotherapy, Elizabeth's lump had shrunk by roughly half, leaving her consultant stunned.

"I asked him how much he thought it shrunk by and he said 50%.

"After the second chemo they couldn't feel it. After the third, he was shaking his head."

After six rounds of chemo Elizabeth had surgery and it was found that her tumour had shrunk by approximately 89%.

When they removed Elizabeth's lymphs, only one of 17 tested positive.

"Something major happened. I've got friends who went through the same treatment.

"One of them isn't here anymore, she passed away last year. And one of them didn't have the same response as I did."

The artist and therapist believes she responded so well to treatment because she needed to be around.

But, tough choices also had to be made to aid her recovery and instead of a lumpectomy, Elizabeth made the difficult choice to go through with a mastectomy, in order to increase her chances of being cancer free.

Her oncologist told her if she decided to have a mastectomy the chances of getting cancer again would be extremely remote."

At this point the oncologist did not know how positive she had responded to treatment.

"I gave myself the best possible chance. I had to put my vanity behind me. It's not all you see externally, it's about the inside as well," she explains.

The artist plans on having reconstruction in the future.

Receiving the all clear on December 16th, 2016, Elizabeth's consultant was so happy with how she responded to treatment that he told her he would be very surprised to have to see her again.

"Since my diagnosis and since I got better I've been doing my art and my writing, but from doing Rathcormac market I've met so many people with cancer.

"Nearly everyone who comes up to my stall either has it, had it, or has had someone die from it."

With her parents living in Ballinfull, the artist said she always felt 'a pull' back to Sligo.

"We came here on a holiday after everything and when we returned to England I just thought, 'What are we doing'."

"I felt like I had belonged," she adds.

After going through her own experience what would the artist say to someone going through their own battle with cancer?

"Stay focused, surround yourself with positive things, with the things you enjoy, exercising on the days you feel like doing it. Don't sit down and let the disease consume you."

A firm believer in a positive outlook, Elizabeth again reiterates just how important positivity can be.

"Your attittude is what controls your outcome, it's not just chemo."

A woman of strong faith, Elizabeth believes God gave her strength in overcoming her illness.

"I would never have dreamt of coping with what I coped with. Cancer was my biggest fear," admitted Elizabeth who lost four uncles from cancer.

She continues, "I'd tell people be grateful you've got your treatment. You will come through it...Surround yourself with positive things and your family.."

Since the move back to her family roots, Elizabeth says she has not stopped painting.

"It's just lovely to have my family around, I haven't had that for 20 years and we all take that for granted."

Elizabeth says she has found great comfort in Sligo Cancer Support and sees the exhibition as a thank you to them.

Among the artists joining Elizabeth displaying her art for the month is Ruth Cadden, who's mother Marie passed away last year from lung cancer. Marie compiled a poetry collection written by breast cancer survivors, entitled, Bosom Pals.

Ruth sees the space as a comfortable place where people can come and talk.

The collection of poetry will also be available at the exhibition.

An auction of pieces donated by the artists will take place at the end of the exhibition, and other displayed work can be purchased, with 5% going towards Sligo Cancer Support.

Sligo Champion