Presented for the 20th Annual Conference of the Society for Integrative Oncology at the Banff Center for Arts & Creativity in Banff, Alberta, Canada, September 14-16, 2023
“every.single.one” is an intermedia performance about my cancer experience that depicts personal, familial, and community stories with hereditary cancer while exploring topics of science, genetics, integrative oncology, and healing from the patient’s perspective of modern medicine. It interweaves three levels of testimonial—mine, my sister’s, and those of hereditary cancer survivors and previvors, whose stories were conveyed to me in a series of interviews.
I began documenting the cancer process in audiovisual material from the moment I received the phone call from the radiologist informing me that the biopsy found stage two triple-negative breast cancer in February 2017. I anticipated that the tumor might be cancer because my sister had been diagnosed twice in 9 years by that time. A genetic test after diagnosis confirmed a cancer risk due to a mutation of the BRCA1 gene.
Dance as a healing practice is an important throughline in the performance, as it was during my treatment and recovery. I have been practicing Indian classical dance since 2009. Shortly after my diagnosis, I informed my dance mentor, Anjali Tata-Hudson, that I wished “to keep dancing through this.” We worked on traditional pieces that would provide focus for physical, emotional, and spiritual strength that we later re-envisioned into creative movement segments co-choreographed for this piece.
The endeavor to document my experience in real-time with an end goal of an artistic production evoked hope for something coming to fruition in a future in which I would be alive. It also enabled me to participate fully in the medical narrative (my own) that was unfolding, keeping track of information so I could formulate important questions to my medical team to aid in the decision-making processes which can be so daunting while undergoing treatment. In my engagement with the arts as an integrative approach to my cancer management, the very act of creating was a means of self-actualization, giving me a sense of agency in the midst of an illness that felt utterly out of my control. It provided me with a means to process the life-altering ordeal in which to, in the words of feminist poet Audre Lorde, “examine it, put it into perspective, share it and make use of it.”
Video production for performance in Banff: Bryan White, BOW Media. Post-production, Cherie Sampson. (All video work within the performance: Cherie Sampson. Full credits for the performance are to be found in Vimeo links.)
Art’s healing role
There have been many memoirs, films and video, performances, plays, and visual artworks by artists about their own experiences with cancer. (For example, “It’s Always Something” by Gilda Radner.) Artists whose works involve the written word in autobiographies about illness are sometimes referred to as “autopathographies.” For the authors, the writing represents an active, rather than passive role in the illness process. For authors and audiences alike (including patients and caregivers), the story writing and story sharing is a pathway into learning more about the illness, edifying and educating ourselves along the way. It is motivational for both author and listener, evoking self-acceptance, especially as the personal narratives humanize a clinical and often disembodying experience and portray the reality that no two cancer stories are alike. Illness narratives provide an alternate voice to that of the medical field as well as offer inspiration, pathways, and strategies for others to access their own sense of agency for healing and cancer management. All experiences with illness are validated—wherever one may be at any given moment on the patient-survivor continuum.
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