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Thursday, 30 July 2015 22:30

Cancer Portraits




This photo of me is a lie.


The broad smile on my face masks the feelings of utter dread that have possessed me for the past three weeks since I learnt of my fate. A group of friends have made it a mission to cheer me up and I am smiling for the camera to show them how much I appreciate their gesture.

The pink fan that they have given me to accompany me on my journey has brought me a momentary sense of mirth. It is a clever present for someone who has been precipitously delivered into menopause and is about to start chemotherapy for their third diagnosis of cancer.

My first diagnosis was a malignant melanoma when I was 23 years old. The second diagnosis was a sleeping kind of breast cancer that resulted in me having a double mastectomy when I was 45 years old. The third diagnosis was a more serious and advanced form of breast cancer a mere three years after my mastectomy. The tumour, which was 6.5 centimeters long, had grown in the tiny bit of breast tissue that remained. I am to undergo the awful slash, cut and burn routine – chemotheraphy, excision of the tumour and radiotherapy. The outcome is uncertain. 

The smile is a brave attempt to paper over the cracks that have opened up in my heart. I am unmoored. Cancer does that. It untethers you and leaves you floating in a place far away. The smile is a desperate attempt to create edges to my world and to remind me of the texture of life that I had just a few weeks before the diagnosis.


This next photo is also an illusion. It is taken three weeks after the camera has captured me holding that pink fan. My first three of eighteen sessions of chemotherapy are done. I have well and truly crossed the threshold into the kingdom of the sick. In this foreign land, I am only just adapting to the new rules. This photo is of my dog, Starlight, and me on our farm in the Magaliesberg, the place I love best in the world. But right now, in my parallel universe, even the contours of this tract of land have flattened and the warm sun that beats down on the red earth has lost its shine.

I am possessed with the sensation of my hair having started to coagulate. I cannot think of anything else. Every few minutes, I excuse myself from the company of family and friends and rush into the bedroom so that I can stare in the mirror. My soft curly golden locks, that have earned me the title of ‘Goldilocks’ have taken on the appearance of overcooked Chinese noodles. The few remaining good patches more closely resemble bits of shredded cabbage.

Besides the increasingly odd appearance of the mop on my head, my hair is also coming out at a rapid rate. Instead of leaving behind a Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs, I am shedding golden strands wherever I go.

Nobody knows the depths of my despair. They may observe the debris on a cushion or shirt collar but I still look relatively normal so the import of these signs is not obvious. In fact, my impending catastrophe is not evident at all. I am to learn later that an average head of hair has over 140 000 strands and it takes a long time for the loss of hair to become visible. Right then and there, there are no words that adequately express the lines of pain that are threading through my body.


Here I am, smiling again, this time more faintly. I am now a stranger to myself. The configuration of my musculature is no longer familiar without my hair as its framing device. I am no longer I. At the same time, this photo is the most honest one of them thus far. It captures my true essence, the hiatus of my being, the suspension of all known boundaries of the person I have inhabited for the past 49 years. The smile is the last vestige of the known and is therefore important to me, the knower.

I have lost my hair, that which for my whole life has been my physical and emotional shield, my ‘signature’, the foremost part of my identity. It is the attribute that other people have commented on nearly every day of my life since I was born. “Your hair is so beautiful. Is that your real colour? Are those your real curls?” I am asked with regularity. Will I ever have to answer these questions again? My heart is in tatters.

I will never forget the trip to the hairdresser that brought me to this moment. Candice’s palms rest lightly on my shoulders. She gives me a slight squeeze. My head is bowed. My submission in the next step in this difficult journey is complete.

I see her take out a large pair of scissors from a container of blue antiseptic liquid that stands in front of the mirror. The blades seemed to have a malevolent gleam as if they are about to plunge into my heart. My mind is racing.

I hear the snip, snip as the edges of the blades meet my entangled mass. My eyes are stinging with tears. I try and force them back. I have to stay strong even just for this moment.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

I stare into the mirror as my hair tumbles to the floor and amasses in small feathery auburn balls all around me.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

A series of longer curls descend. Should I gather them up and keep them? Is it possible to reattach them later? I can no longer bear to watch. I squeeze my eyes tightly closed.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

After just a few minutes, I sense that we were reaching the end as I can feel the cold metal of the scissors against my skull. I have never felt this before in all my years of having my hair cut.

The breeze from the window tickles my newly naked neck. A cold shiver runs down my spine. Candice’s hands still. She quietly entices me to take a look.

I do not know or recognize the person who stares out from the mirror. The Lauren I know has been erased. Who is this new person? I struggle to take in this image of myself.

In a mere 300 or so seconds, I have become a cancer patient. A sick person.  A person everyone looks at kindly in the street. A person that is offered help. I feel vulnerable.

Candice encourages me to look again. “You have a beautifully shaped head”, she said. “Your eyes are gleaming. You have a strong jaw line.”

My terror slightly relinquishes its hold over me. I try to reframe my gaze. The image of the beautiful bald singer, Sinead O’Connor, floats into my mind. “Hold onto your strong visage,” I think I hear her whisper.

She unknowingly coaxes me to recognise the potential for attunement between my inner and outer self. It is precisely because I have stepped into the epicenter of chemoland that I can try and attain that special kind of harmony reserved for the sick.

Later, as this version of me declares my illness to the world, I learn not to feel sorry for myself. Neither do I care if others feel sorry for me. There is a strange enjoyment in being free of the burden of that mass of hair that no longer belongs on my head. This is not a capitulation so much as a gentleman’s agreement with the disease. So long as the disease is in me, this is how I will look. Unexpectedly, my radical transformation becomes a solace.

The laws of physics do not apply in chemoland. As I start to reconstitute my new self, there is an unexpected explosion. Pain enters my body and does not relinquish its hold. In this photo, I have been sucked into a black hole where there is zero gravity to bolt me to the earth. That is why my shoulder floats upwards and gets stuck somewhere by my ears and why I can no longer use my smile as wallpaper to cover the cracks. In this astral wasteland, my navigational system keeps recalculating, never revealing the direction I should be travelling. There is no true north to be found. Time is congealed.

Instead of forward movement, I circle back on myself. I am being white anted, eaten from the inside out. The vultures are on stand-by and I wonder if this feast on my own body will eventually cede to their relentless taunting presence. There is nothing more eviscerating than the sense of the betrayal of the self. How am I to stop the irregular mutant cells that have colonised my chest wall, from winning this war? I am being derailed.


I can barely look at this photo. It makes me cry every time I see it. I am not even sure that I should include it here. I think it makes me look like the vulture that I fear.

In this place of utter darkness, I am helped by many to find the flickers of light. My husband and my children are the fulcrums around which my body spins. Each of my loved ones emits rays of alternating shades of blue and green that cast a soothing balm over my fragile existence. My mother, my close family and friends do the same, ensuring that the scaffolding that keeps falling apart is miraculously resurrected time and time again.

I feel so blessed, not in the biblical sense, but in the sense of being recognized and acknowledged by my community in a moment of deep need.

This photo is of me at the end of the journey. I am in the ancient town of Granada in Spain with the astonishing Alhambra building captured in the fading light in the background. I have been dragged over the gap back into the kingdom of the well by love.

It is clear here that I have been forged and re-forged and that my dark forces have been redirected. The incontrovertible power of these changes is evident in my inner gaze. They have stitched and re-stitched my face into a new series of shapes with refined borders. This photo of me has traces of my experience that are entirely absent in the first self-portrait.

While nothing about me is the same, there are two new features that strike me the most. The first is the tenderness of others that has been permanently embossed on my soul. This has seeped into every cell and is now a constituent part of my being. It has lubricated my tissues and my muscles. I can see it radiating brightly from this flat surface.

The second striking feature is my smile. It has kept the same outline despite all of the mangled toxic infusions of these last months. Love and kindness has held it in its place and has allowed this to be my only form of continuity.

I think I like this woman more than the one that I see in the first portrait, strange as that may sound. I like that there is no lie here at all.



I cannot see the next self-portrait in this series. But I know that after cancer, frozen figments and wishful projections are no longer possible. There is no way to neaten up life and project order. I know that any new delineations of self will be firm and tethered. The next image that fills this frame will be unassailable and true.



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