Ria Vanden Eynde is a fighter.
She is surviving two cancers, thyroid and breast, diagnosed about nine months apart. A Belgian, inspired by Frida Kahlo and other artists, she express her experience, her scars, her emotions and thoughts in the language of painting….(among others on her website)
Since when have you been painting?
Ria Vanden Eynde: I started drawing at 14, my parents wouldn’t let me take art classes. I went to university to study mathematics and doing something with my brushes went on the back burner.
At 30, after I recovered from a depression, I went to art school, then dropped out again, because of life-stuff and a full time job. Before I was diagnosed, I did a myriad of different things. I have a Ph.D. in mathematics, taught it, did a Gestalt therapy training, studied Applied Ethics, Buddhism, Gender Studies …and worked in all those fields.
I started painting again after going through two cancer treatments (thyroid & breast). I re-enrolled in the art school I took 2 years of painting in about 20 years ago. I’ve started to gear my activity towards leading an “art life.” I’m making pieces I’d like to see travel across the world and live a life of their own. Jennifer Zoellner, an artist friend of mine paraphrases it as “pieces of my (he)art,” sent across the world. I find that idea very moving.
How did having cancer change your life?
Ria Vanden Eynde: I have a heightened respect for my body, more awareness of it and of the fragility of life. Maybe also spiritually. I see us as vulnerable sentient beings of warm flesh and blood and life as precious. I don’t understand the idea that getting cancer would be a betrayal of the body. My body works incredibly well, it reacts in tone with treatments. The zillion reactions that go on at once, why would you expect it to be faultless? My body is on my side, unconditionally- the stuff I sometimes eat… And then at (cancer) times my body can’t do it all on its own and needs help, meds, surgery, radiation…and when these don’t help anymore, I’ll die…and I think that’s ok… It’s a Buddhist idea: the body is finite and has its limitations; you have a body, hence you know suffering. But also: how else would I be able to experience compassion than through the body, how else would I be able to feel so increasingly vital?
I consider myself extraordinarily lucky and feel intensely grateful…A fellow-survivor said in a magazine, “you need to have luck in all of this, luck that it’s discovered in time, luck that they can treat you, that they have meds, that you can rely on your doctor’s skills, luck that you’re surrounded well by your family and friends, that you can carry the financial cost, that you’re mentally strong enough, that people don’t abandon you…” I feel that cancer can bring families together, that it can re-connect those who’ve been out of touch. I’ve met new friends along the (living) way, I’ve lost others. My husband is THE best! My family and my in-laws and I drifted more apart, I didn’t have much support there…To me, that’s also where coping lies, as you deal with all of that …
These 2 cancers won’t kill me-I hope, I want to be careful, after all, statistics…They are, to paraphrase Kris Carr, both pushing me to live. I’ve started to paint again, a long lost love along the way of living. I paint about my cancer experience too and post the pieces on a blog, as an attempt I guess to “give” something back for all the support I received, http://painting2cancers.blogspot.com/
I often do the deathbed-test. Can I live with it/myself if I don’t do such and such…won’t I regret not taking a chance? I’m more pro-active in what I want out of life, …I’m more selective with the company I keep…I often feel empowered, when hiccups are in the way, I tend to think, “hey… I’m surviving 2 cancers, do you really want to stand in my way, will I really let this stop me?”
Getting a second cancer really “rubbed it in”: whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, whether I’m angry or not, whether I cry or scream or stay silent, whether I question all of this or not, whether I anticipate or whether I’m scared, whether I’m hoping or feel desperate…it has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of this….I’ll have to take it for what it is…I’ll take it as it is… And that, I think, is (my) resilience right there.
What would you like to communicate through your art?
Ria Vanden Eynde: While being treated paintings by Frida Kahlo often came to my mind. Whenever I look at ‘The Broken Column,’ for instance, I experience(d) compassion. Should my pieces be able to do that for other patients, should they provide them with hope for their own process of coping with cancer/of living with cancer, that would be wonderful…
Also, to me, painting works as a language, as a journal medium and the blog as an illustrated diary of sorts. I don’t bring the subject up in every context though it’s always “with” me. I don’t “talk” much about the despair, the chaos, the fear, the anger, the grief of having cancer, words fall short, but I paint about it. I want to exteriorize what I went through, for myself, but also for those close to me. Picasso said “I don’t say everything, but I paint everything,” I guess that’s true for me and my cancer-pieces too.
What are your thoughts about the future – your own personal future as well as the future of cancer treatments?
Ria Vanden Eynde: As far as my own future, I will be short: I would love to live a long, ‘healthy,’ good life, filled with art, love and friends! And when the moment comes, a good death in that I wouldn’t have to suffer too much or be dependent on those close to me.
As to the future of cancer treatments, I’m not a doctor or policy maker, so what I think has much to do with my own personal experience during my treatment-trajectory. I’d like to see insurance companies to cover at least a portion of the costs of ‘own tissue breast reconstruction’ for women who choose to have one. I’d like to see patient-centered care with consideration for the quality of life of cancer patients. Multidisciplinary care too. As a patient having two cancers I benefit from an approach that encourages dialogue between the two oncology departments. I’d like to see girls educated early on self breast-exams. I’d like to see more public awareness on all types of cancer so as to get it into the public “vocabulary,” as opposed to it still being a taboo subject sometimes. Nobody benefits from a taboo subject.
See also Ria Vanden Eynde website and follow her thoughts and paintings there.