Annette Myer drew a rag doll with a bloated face, a removable Velcro breast, blond hair and a blue dress. She calls it “Steroid Girl,” an alter ego based on her struggle with breast cancer.
The drawing is one of many by Myer, an artist and teacher in the advanced stages of the disease. She has journals full of pictures and poems delving into her innermost feelings since her diagnosis in 1991.
Five years ago, she decided journaling could be a healing outlet. She took the advice she gave her oldest daughter, Kimberly Thomas, at the onset of the disease — to commit her thoughts and feelings to paper. Her daughter was only seven then, but she drew pictures and wrote about how the cancer had invaded both their lives. She drew a picture of her mother with a Band-Aid on her chest while lying on a hospital gurney.
“Sometimes your mommy will be throwing up a lot. Well, if she does, don’t worry, she’ll be OK,” the child wrote. “I’m sad, scared and happy. I am happy, because my mommy will be all better soon.”
Myer said “Kimmy” appeared to be reassuring herself through the journaling. She believes her daughter kept her hopes and fears to herself, because she didn’t want to add to her mother’s pain. “Nobody knows what is going on in the minds of somebody who has breast cancer or their children. … How would I know what’s going on in my daughter’s head unless she wrote it down? She never told me.”
“Kimmy” said she remembers keeping her feelings to herself, because her mother was going through “a lot.” “Looking back, they are hard to read,” the daughter said of her entries. “I hadn’t seen them since I was seven. It was hard to read them and to remember that kind of stuff. She was sick a lot. She was in bed and in the hospital.”
Myer said those first months served as a preview of reoccurring bouts of cancer over the next 13 years. Every time she thought she had beat the odds, the breast cancer materialized again. The mother wrote:
“Bad things happen to good people.
How many bad things can one good person endure?
Is it a test to see what bad thing will bring me down?
I try to keep my head up. ‘Be positive,’ they say.
I’m sometimes so sick of being positive I could scream.”
She writes of hope, fear and despair. Myer’s journals have become her shadow; she takes them everywhere. “I don’t know what I would have done without them,” she said.
Myer never planned for anyone other than her two daughters, Kimberly and Marlene, to see her entries. “Journaling, this was for me,” she recalled.
But that changed dramatically this year. “When I found out I was in the advanced stages, I realized so many women like me were struggling internally,” she said. “This is a good thing to put out there for people to be aware of, what a woman goes through when she has breast cancer and how it affects her children.”
Women, who find incredible strength in one another, would know they were not alone, she said.
Now, 48 of her pictures and poems, including some of her daughter’s early journal entries, are the centerpiece of four art shows. Post cards are being created, with a percentage of the sales going to Shenandoah Oncology Relay for Life. Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation expressed interest last week in underwriting a book featuring the journal entries.
Winchester Medical Center has bought a copy of the prints to put on permanent display.
An art show is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 14, from 5-8 p.m. at the NCI-Navy Hematology/Oncology Clinic and Breast Care Center at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “I really wanted to have these as a legacy for my daughters. Now it is a legacy for more people.”
Myer said the whole point of being an artist is to communicate one’s feelings. “I’ve painted many pretty pictures, but this is my gut. Maybe I should have painted like this all along, as if it weren’t meant for anyone to see.”
The first art show was held at Fresh Air Designs in Berryville, after the business owner Maureen Linemon learned about the journals. She wanted to promote the annual “Relay for Life” and increase breast cancer awareness. Myer’s friend Bonnie Jacobs, told Linemon about the pictures and poems.
Unsure, Myer held off deciding whether to go public with her work until she gauged Linemon’s reaction to the art. “She started crying. Her mother is a cancer survivor,” Myer recalled. “I thought, ‘Look at this reaction from a woman I don’t even know.’”
Encouraged, Myer decided to have the images, including some of “Kimmy’s” pages, enlarged to 11” by 14”. “Then my brother and another friend paid for the frames,” she said. “I don’t have money. I’m a teacher.’
A lot of people turned out for the event, including men and women who had never met Myer. “One woman started crying. She had opened a gallery in Winchester,” Myer said. That woman, Cathy Gleason-Dykes held the next show at her business, the Whimsy Gallery, in August.
Linemon’s best friend, Moira McGuire, attended the first event and decided to kick off Breast Awareness Month — October — with an art show at the medical center in Bethesda.
Another woman drove from Maryland’s eastern shore. A high school friend flew in from Los Angeles. “It was amazing. My doctors were there with their wives and children.”
River Bend Principal Ben Lacy said he attended the first art show. “It was very sad,” he said. “But I know she is excited to get this kind of exposure for the topic. I think it is a very unselfish thing to do. She is not doing it for personal gain in any way. I think she is hoping it will help.”
Winchester Medical Center has scheduled a reception for Sunday, Oct. 10, from 2-5 p.m.
Myer said she may be sharing her thoughts with the world, but the journals remain an important extension of herself for her daughters, Kimberly and Marlene Thomas, now 15. “Because of the journaling, I have things left behind for them so they can know what is going on,” she said.
Kimberly Thomas said she is glad her mother has the opportunity to share her story. “I know it’s helping a lot of people. It gives them hope and strength. … I don’t think people have put their feelings out there like this, been this open and showed this much before.”