BEING diagnosed with breast cancer can be a terrifying ordeal, but for Wendy Roberts from Lurgan, it was a pivotal moment.
Thanks to a chance opportunity to do an art therapy course with the Ulster Cancer Foundation, Wendy has had a complete career transformation and is now a fully trained art therapist, helping other local cancer patients.
Wendy was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 1998.
She explained: “I didn’t really have any symptoms other than a small lump – it felt a bit like a hard pea - in my breast. I decided to see my GP who referred me for a needle biopsy followed by a lumpectomy.
“I was just 37 years of age so cancer was the last thing on my mind. I was in total shock when the results came back positive and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I was told that I had cancer I was struck with a terrible fear of the unknown – what was going to happen to me? I was married with two young children - how would my family cope?
“During this stage I still felt well so it was strange coming to terms with my diagnosis. The consultant explained that as the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes I would need a mastectomy and then I had to endure a lengthy dose of chemotherapy which lasted for nine months.
“The rest of the year passed in a blur of hospital appointments and various treatments. I didn’t start to feel ill until I began my chemo treatment. Once I’d finished my chemo, I started on five weeks of radiotherapy.
“My family were so supportive at this time, driving me to appointments and just being there for me. It really helped me get through a difficult time.
“It wasn’t until 2000 that I saw an advert for the Ulster Cancer Foundation’s art therapy service and it really struck a chord with me. I had no art experience or training but it was something that I was interested in.
“I signed up for a 10 week programme and it was an amazing experience. Not only was it a great opportunity to meet other patients who were going through the same things but it was a very safe environment to open up and talk.
“You worked very much at your own pace and got a chance to use and experiment with all kinds of different mediums – clay, pastels and paints. I was relieved that you didn’t need any kind of background in art, just an open mind and a desire to make or create something.
“There was a lovely atmosphere amongst the group and we knew that no-one was judging us or what we created. We were encouraged to experiment and I found that very liberating.
“Cancer for me was a very emotional experience. Sometimes I just couldn’t find the words to express how I felt but through art therapy I was able to connect with my emotions and give voice to my feelings. I had a real sense of ease and unburdening. I just loved it!
“The Ulster Cancer Foundation’s art therapy course whetted my appetite for art and when the programme finished I signed up for an art therapy summer school run annually by NIGAT (Northern Ireland Group for Art Therapy) before enrolling in a Foundation course in art and design at Lurgan Tech.
“I then went on to do a degree in Fine Art at the University of Ulster and a Masters in Art Psychotherapy.
“I did a couple of placements on my Masters course and bizarrely the last one took me back to the Ulster Cancer Foundation, helping to deliver art therapy sessions for the charity in Dungannon and Belfast. I felt like I had come full circle.
“I’ve now just started running art therapy sessions for the Ulster Cancer Foundation at Craigavon Hospital. When I think back to the time that I was diagnosed with breast cancer I would never have imagined the path my life would take as a result.
“It’s now 13 years on from my diagnosis and I’m well and relishing my new-found career. I can honestly say that in spite of all the challenges that cancer brings it’s been a really positive and enriching experience which I attribute to an ongoing engagement in the creative process and the support from the Ulster Cancer Foundation in providing such services.
“For any woman going through a similar experience my advice would be to be kind to yourself. Give yourself time and space and allow yourself to be open to new experiences – you just never know where they may lead!”
The Ulster Cancer Foundation’s art therapy group at Craigavon Hospital takes place every Friday afternoon from 3pm – 4.30pm and runs until October 28. Further art therapy groups are planned for the New Year.
The charity also provides a range of other services, free of charge, to help and support local women with breast cancer. They include an information and support helpline – 0800 783 3339, a bra and swimwear fitting service, Beauty for Life, creative writing, family support, counselling, Zest for Life programme, walking groups and support groups. For further details on any of these services please contact Leonne Morrison on (028) 9066 3281 or click on www.ulstercancer.org