Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Oncoplastic Fruit at Port Eliot

The first ever public orange surgery workshop took place at the wonderfully eclectic Port Eliot Festival on 25th July - Jarvis Cocker calls it "a festival of ideas" - thanks to an invitation from the people at Their programme theme was Write out West: "You might associate Cornwall with painters and pasties, but we're at Port Eliot to showcase our vibrant writing scene..." Well holy smokes I'm blushing, cos that writing scene included me and my blog y'all! 
Look, Profwriting even asked fab illustrator Georgia Sawers
to create a word-swilling cowboy programme

My workshop was code-named Operation Orange. My trusty sidekick was none other than Frances Lambert, a breast care nurse at the Mermaid Centre, Truro. I think she was a bit worried during our run-through that our presentation was going to be a shambles. We were sitting on a bench on the hill playing with our props, which included a silky prosthesis, Pimms, playdoh and skads of oranges. Frances kept asking me what I was going to say and each time I told her something different. Partly, it was because I simply didn't know what to expect. Who was going to be in the audience?

The answer was: all sorts. There were patients who had sought out my talk, and there were people who came out of sheer curiosity. It was a thrill to find that both those with experience of breast cancer and those without got some wow moments out of the session. A woman who'd already been through mastectomy and was awaiting reconstruction said: "I really enjoyed attending your workshop - it helped me understand what's going to happen to me." She also said her husband would have found the orange surgery workshop reassuring. It was evident that the workshop can benefit not just patients, but everyone around them. It's about understanding what's happened to our bodies to help us feel much more in control of the situation, and for others to understand what we have been through so that we can relate to one another. It beats the medical prose in some of the patient literature for getting information across in a pithy (couldn't resist!) and accessible way.

I wondered if people were afraid of coming to the workshop. The subject of breast cancer (whether early or advanced) is a big sticky scary mess, and frankly some people would rather not look the subject in the eye when they don't have to. But after Operation Orange, people were coming up to me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed it. They were genuinely amazed. It had truly opened their eyes. This workshop isn't about pink-ribboned awareness-raising or tales of extraordinary survivorship. It's the fruity equivalent of stitch and bitch, where we can unpick the breast cancer taboos, talk honestly and openly, and be unafraid to ask questions. Meanwhile, our children can sit by and quietly fashion boobies and animals out of playdoh, or play with puppets.
Two workshop attendees ride the carousel afterwards.
(Puppets lovingly crafted by Daisy and Lola Stevens)
For me, Operation Orange has turned feeling mutilated into feeling proud of my new breast. I consider it a work of extraordinary craftsmanship, and I see my oncoplastic surgeon as an artist/sculptor creating unique pieces lovingly by hand. As Frances would say (thanks to her interest in neuro-linguistic programming) I have 're-framed' my experience. Whatever, I like the word 're-frame', especially as we 'frame' art that we love. In essence, I think we proved that understanding surgery through orange sculpture - while swilling freshly-squeezed orange juice with Pimms and lemonade in a friendly group - can make both past and even future losses so much easier to bear.

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