Art exhibition looks at Siobhan’s journey with cancer

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Newry woman Siobhan McQuade, above, is holding an art exhibition in Belfast documenting her journey with cancer to mark Ovarian Cancer Month in March.

A retired teacher from Cloughoge, Siobhan was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008. She used the Cancer Focus Northern Ireland Art Therapy Service which sparked an unexpected passion for art and she is now completing her Masters in Fine Art.

Her exhibition, called Emerging, is being hosted and supported by the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast from March 12 to 18.

“My diagnosis came as such a shock. Cancer had a huge impact on my life. Feeling sad is too small a word to describe how I felt – I was lost in a black, dark, lonely space,” Siobhan said.

“Following my surgery I received chemotherapy in Belfast City Hospital. It was there that I saw a poster about the Cancer Focus NI art therapy service.

“Having worked as a primary school teacher I know how much fun and enjoyment children get from art, so when I discovered this service I was overjoyed that there was an outlet for me too. I thought it would be a lovely thing to do,” she said.

“I didn’t know what art therapy was, what it meant or what I would have to do, but I had nothing more to lose. Cancer had changed the future that I had imagined, so I thought, why not give it a try?”

During her first session with Joanne Boal, the Cancer Focus NI art therapist, Siobhan recalls she cried, and then cried some more.

“Cancer generated so many emotions – working with Joanne helped me address the frustration and anger that had built up inside me. It was a way of working through the fears and the horror of it all. She acts as a facilitator, so you are in complete control of what you create during the session. And she is so good at listening. It was transformative.”

Siobhan said that the therapy worked on a subconscious level. While she found the sessions emotional, ultimately they left her feeling more relaxed and it helped her face the world again.

“At the beginning I felt like I was swimming in dark turbulent waters but, in time, things became clearer and I was re-energised and hopeful about life and the future. It was a wonderful way to help me cope with cancer.”

Unexpectedly and amazingly, through Cancer Focus NI’s art therapy, Siobhan discovered a passion for art. “It awakened something in me and started me on a journey. After my treatment I was unable to go back to teaching. Instead I joined art classes at the Southern Regional College (SRC) in Newry and I haven’t looked back.

“I now have a diploma in Foundation Studies in Art and Design from SRC and a degree in Fine Art from Belfast College of Art, after which I became Resident Artist for a year. I’m now in the second year of my Masters. Life is what you make it, and I am living again.

The exhibition represents her journey from illness to the present day, from her first work with Joanne, through her diploma and degree, leading to her development as an artist.

“Having said all that, you don’t need to be good at art to benefit from art therapy and I would definitely recommend the service to anyone,” she added.

Joanne says: “Cancer can make people feel that they have lost control, it can increase feelings of isolation and lower a person’s self-esteem. Research has shown that creating art can have a positive impact by helping the healing process – improving physical, mental and emotional well-being. For many cancer patients this can lead to a better understanding of their illness and coming to terms with the disease and the future.

Art therapy can help communicate anxiety and stress and, in my experience, many patients get relief from painful and troubled feelings through creativity. It also provides time-out for relaxation which can lead to a greater sense of well-being.”

Cancer Focus NI Art Therapy sessions are confidential and take place in a safe and caring environment. All materials are provided, free of charge, and you can use a variety of mediums such as paints, pastels, pencils or clay. For more information email care@cancerfocusni.org, call 028 9066 3281 or visit www.cancerfocusni.org

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