Artist Maureen Egan’s book ‘The Light From Here: A Breast Cancer Story’ shares her fears and resolve in her own words and paintings
Every woman’s journey through breast cancer is different in spite of the similarities. When Midcoast artist Maureen Egan, diagnosed at 51, was undergoing treatment, she knew she wanted to share her story. When her treatment was over, the idea for a book illustrated by her paintings took shape.
“The Light From Here: A Breast Cancer Story” is an intimate look at Egan’s resolve, fears and learning. With an artist’s eye, she writes of an epiphany while undergoing a needle biopsy; self-righteous anger that she, of all people, has cancer; the kindness of medical professionals and the brusque impatience of others; and her frustrations with her unsentimental, but loving and supportive husband. The conversational text combined with the colorful paintings, ripe with spirituality, make for an evocative and empathetic read.
In addition to her art, Egan, now 57 and “in excellent physical health,” is a caregiver to four women ages 75 to 98. “This work nourishes my heart and provides a direct channel for being of service, a need I’ve had throughout my life that matches and balances my need to make art,” she says.
Here’s what she had to say about her book.
Q: Did your cancer journey change you as a person?
A: Oh yes! For years I had been struggling to embrace the concept of abundance, with limited results. It took a catastrophic diagnosis like cancer to do the job with a series of unexpected gifts. First came a heart-opening event during my needle biopsies that showed me—in complete certainty—how much love surrounds us. That event alone altered my view of life profoundly and still moves me when I remember it.
Then came the steady flow of kindness all through my treatment period. I was offered more than I needed and, more importantly, I allowed myself to receive all that came toward me. This put to rest my long-held view that there wasn’t enough: money, support, love. When I was making the painting (“Constellation of Kindness”) to illustrate this personal phenomenon, I came up with the idea of a constellation that I had always wanted to believe in, and that now I could no longer deny, as it stretched so magnificently overhead.
Another change is my emotional life. If I need to cry now, the feeling rises up and can’t be snuffed. The tears come, even in public, and then they pass. Like most people who have been through a health trial, I’m more clear about what is important to me: family, kindness, love, creativity. The list is pretty short.
Q: You say that after finishing treatment, you approached your art with “power in the newness and enthusiasm of (your) quest.” How did that manifest itself?
A: I was on fire at the end of radiation (figuratively and almost literally). Within a week I started working on what I called ‘My Project,’ a book with words and art that would recreate the remarkable journey I had undergone. I knew that all the support I’d received would come to an end, and I wanted and needed to fill that void with a huge creative endeavor. Plus, I felt a deep need to give back. I told myself that even if my story only helped a handful of people, the effort would be worth it. This conviction kept me going during the arduous journey of creating the book. Once I started hearing from readers, I knew that ‘my story’ had become ‘our story,’ ‘our’ being anyone who had navigated illness, relationship issues or self-doubt, or who wants to understand someone who is going through these challenges (which covers just about everyone.)
Q: How have readers responded to your book?
A: I’ve been delighted by the range of readers, from 25-70, both men and women, and even some nurses, two who are using the book in a class they teach. In August of 2017, the imaging center at Waldo County General Hospital reopened in a newly renovated suite, and I was invited to hang my art in the waiting room as their inaugural show. I also donated 30 books to be distributed by the center to women in need. Now, a year later, the art is still there, as well as two copies of the book, and I hear regularly from women who arrive at the center nervous and anxious, but who are comforted by my art and the book. One woman recently shared that reading the first part of the book in the waiting room made her realize she wasn’t alone in her fear, and that realization made her angst go away. This is what I wanted, why I wrote the book.
Q: What would you like other women with breast cancer to learn from your experience?
A: If nothing else, I’d encourage people to slow down during their treatment period. Ask for help and then accept it, to free up time to rest and just ‘be.’ I spent two weeks taking naps on our covered porch after my July surgery. I have rich memories of how luxurious it felt to do nothing but listen to the birds and slip in and out of sleep, knowing that my only task was to heal.
Surviving all those treatments makes you a warrior of sorts; you’ve pulled strength you didn’t know you had. When your treatments are over, you may feel exhausted, but that strength is still with you. Give yourself time to rebuild, then use your newly forged courage to make changes in your life, or do the brave thing that you never would have imagined you could do before. Writing, and then promoting a book, has taken me to the edge of a cliff many times, but I keep going. I pause, draw up my courage, then jump and trust my new wings.
Q: What is the last book you read that you really enjoyed?
A: I prefer memoirs and chose ones that are read by the authors. My favorite is always the one I’m listening to (currently Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”). Even though I grew up with his music, I had never been a big fan, but that has changed now that I’m learning about his life. I’ve been listening to his music, too, and it adds another layer. I feel nourished by the honesty, playfulness, work ethic and integrity of this remarkable, yet ordinary, man.
Amy Canfield is a writer and editor who lives in South Portland.