Art was my lifeline during cancer treatment

Cressi Sowerbutts

Cressi, 21

Creative expression was hugely important to Cressi when she went through treatment for leukaemia. She’s been inspired to launch an arts magazine, featuring beautiful art and photography from young patients and creatives affected by cancer and coronavirus.

“Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.” – Robin Williams’ John Keating, Dead Poets’ Society

Now more than ever, art is visceral to human experience. It is intricately woven into the fabrics and canvases of how we communicate, process, create, document, connect, and develop.

When Covid wedged a gap between us, art has brought us back together: everyone, everywhere has joined forces in efforts to preserve our physical and mental health in ways that surpass innovation. Life has been interrupted, so we have adapted and found creative means of continuing. Covid serves to prove that art both keeps us alive and makes life worth living.

At the age of 21, I was diagnosed with extramedullary chloroma, a form of acute myeloid leukaemia. My treatment programme required me to live as an inpatient in a hospital far from home for month-long stints during each round of chemotherapy.

Cressi Sowerbutts during treatment

Fashion helped me regain some control over my life and feel less of a patient, more of a human. Power dressing through sparkly PICC line covers, bright pink flares and ridiculous sunglasses presented a sense of fearlessness when I had never felt so fearful.

Writing externalised whirling thoughts and added structure and purpose to idle days, while chats with nurses during routine check-ups became my daily fix of sanity and calls, voice notes, messages, and letters made me feel less alone, despite the distance (we can all relate).

Reading was a challenge, so I flicked through photography magazines and books that a friend sent over and worked my way through Studio Ghibli films on an exercise bike while receiving blood transfusions.

I was fortunate to be treated on a Teenage Cancer Trust ward, which was well-equipped. My brother would serenade me in the music room while my dad would warble to Springsteen’s ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ on the jukebox.

I coerced visiting friends and family into ‘therapeutic paint sessions’ in the common room, which essentially consisted of them absent-mindedly stabbing at a page while I rested. Myself and another patient bonded over a game of Cards Against Humanity – we remain close friends to this day.

Images and film recordings further served to document both the bad and good of the experience which, without the multi-faceted range of art, would have been a very different situation.

A year and a half on, my treatment has come to an end and I am fortunate enough to be in remission. I now have the luxury of being able to move on from that experience and, at times, even forget about the lifeline that art was to me. But for so many, that lifeline is still vital.

So GET A LIFE was born: an arts publication lifting the lid on sickness through the lens of young creatives and patients. Issue 01 contains content centred around cancer and coronavirus from over 50 contributors, all working from locked-up locations around the world. Our aim is to raise awareness of these two illnesses through digestible words, artwork and photography, while raising funds for NHS Charities Together and Teenage Cancer Trust.

Thanks to funding from ARTCRY, over 1,000 free copies of GET A LIFE will be distributed amongst Teenage Cancer Trust hospital units across the UK as well as universities, charities and other organisations.

Hopefully, somewhere, there will be a patient (who may or may not be wearing pink flares) reading a copy of GET A LIFE. Through the power of art, they will feel less alone and part of a shared, human experience. Because isn’t that what it’s all about?