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Potter Bev McGuigan had to relearn her craft after chemotherapy wiped out her memory

Bev McGuigan's night-school art classes became a lifeline after chemotherapy stripped her memory three years ago. "It was really strange," said McGuigan, a 61-year-old former family counsellor. "I'd done pottery for years, and I couldn't remember how to pull up a wall, how to throw a vessel. I just couldn't remember how to do it. I couldn't put a sentence together, because I couldn't remember, by the time I got to the end of the sentence, what the words were."

The previously accomplished potter with decades of experience couldn't do much more than make beads.

"So I did that for two whole terms," McGuigan said. "I made beads."

As life would have it, McGuigan's husband, David, was diagnosed with lung cancer while Bev was having chemotherapy. He had signed up for a cancer study, simply because he was always at the B.C. Cancer Agency with Bev.

Bev and David McGuigan say the art classes they frequent at Shadbolt Centre are much more than lessons in visual art. - Photo by Donna Hagerman/Vancouver Sun

Vancouver -

Bev McGuigan's night-school art classes became a lifeline after chemotherapy stripped her memory three years ago. "It was really strange," said McGuigan, a 61-year-old former family counsellor. "I'd done pottery for years, and I couldn't remember how to pull up a wall, how to throw a vessel. I just couldn't remember how to do it. I couldn't put a sentence together, because I couldn't remember, by the time I got to the end of the sentence, what the words were."

The previously accomplished potter with decades of experience couldn't do much more than make beads.

"So I did that for two whole terms," McGuigan said. "I made beads."

As life would have it, McGuigan's husband, David, was diagnosed with lung cancer while Bev was having chemotherapy. He had signed up for a cancer study, simply because he was always at the B.C. Cancer Agency with Bev.

"Making the phone call to offer my body to science was a decision that saved my life," said David, 63, a former smoker. "I had no symptoms. One of the parts of the study was they gave us a CT scan, and guess what I found?"

For both McGuigans, Shadbolt Centre art classes - pottery for Bev, and watercolours and life drawing for David - soon came to mean much more than lessons in visual art.

"When I went to pottery, even though it was just making a bead, I could be successful," Bev said.

"It's OK - with clay, if it doesn't work out, you can just smash it and start again, right? Doing repetitive stuff over and over again helped my memory and a variety of my cognitive skills. I think I really clung to the pottery as a method of sustaining my self-esteem and improving my communication skills.

"Reading was impossible, at first. I remember going to a Tim Hortons with my husband one day and I was looking on their big sign for soup or tea or something, and I could not pick out what the words were. It was just totally overwhelming. Too much of any kind of information was exhausting: written information, too much noise, too much sun, too much anything. I was just totally lost.

"Of course, I couldn't go back to work. I still couldn't depend on remembering somebody's name. I still can't remember the services I could pass people on to. Cooking was impossible for me, because I couldn't think of anything to cook. You know how you carry a Rolodex in your head with all your recipes? I didn't have that Rolodex. ... I made pretty bad food for my poor family. Oh lord, you have to laugh at these things, otherwise it would be impossible to get through it," Bev said.

"When I went back to pottery, I hoped that it would help me heal, and it did."

David, an architect who specializes in health-care projects, has found that art "takes my mind off some of the other things that are going on in my life. I had surgery in the beginning of August of 2007, and went back to classes that fall, and did what I could.

"I am now facing yet another surgery for lung cancer. All this fall, that's been in the back of my mind, and (class) has helped me put it aside and forget it for at least three hours a night," said David, who attends class, on average, three nights a week.

David had always been curious about art, but had never really done much. About five years ago, "I finally decided, OK, I'll do it," he said. "It feels good, you know, to sit down and pick up a piece of conte and just draw a clove of garlic. It doesn't matter what the subject is. Part of the exercise last night was to try and do it using line and not using shading.

"You're not thinking about whether the car needs a washing or an oil change of any of those mundane life things that clog our heads," he said. "You're looking at an object and you're sort of visually remembering what you've seen, so you can look down at the paper and create a line from memory. It takes focus.

"I look back at 2003 or earlier, and I guess I was thinking, I need something to do when I stop doing the stuff I do from nine to five. Maybe these health issues are telling me maybe I should be doing it sooner rather than later."

Organizations: B.C. Cancer Agency, Shadbolt Centre

Geographic location: Vancouver

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