Mike White’s diary entry reads: January 30th. I find my chemotherapy is acquiring a distinctive odour, an insinuating rather than overpowering one. As I enter now the fourth of my ten cycles of treatment in that day-room vestibule where I join ‘the souls of the Uncommitted’, some tongue-in-cheek allusion to the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno might be tempting if the chemo had not such a cold soapy smell, freeze-dried in the known facts of my medical condition. The odour originated for me in the ‘polar cap’ headgear that I elected to wear at my first session. This optional device, which resembles a jockey’s helmet and is more commonly requested by women patients, pumps super-cooled liquid around the scalp to freeze the follicles and prevent hair loss and is administered at the same time as the chemo infusion. The designers have attempted to feminise this instrument of torture by giving a bright puce colour to the fabric-covered portions of the skull cap. Never again for me, for I succumbed to a prolonged brain freeze that children are only momentarily acquainted with when they go greedy for ice-cream.
Having now decided to take my chemo ‘straight no chaser’, I half-joke with friends that I am genetically mutating into a seal pup. When it’s me but on a bad day, I can see my transformed self, hairless and corpulent, shuffling across the ice floes of clinical interventions that melt into a Sea of Prognosis where the expert patient is rather like the ancient mariner. It is better to blog this feeling out of my system than be compelled to ‘stoppeth one of three’. My antipodean chum David, who has experience of chemo too, tells me that at the end of my cycles I will know who my true friends are, personally and professionally, and amongst these I feel I must count my ‘imaginary friends’, the (mis)conceptions I have of myself.
Setting aside my occasional body dysmorphia, there is something I have come to like in chemotherapy as it long-hauls me to imaginative places, albeit absorbed through a hazy comprehension akin to jet-lag. I find the chemo process can transport you to a re-assessment of fundamental values and intimate relations and how you view the world, even exploring those fathoms where the big life choices are made. Such conceptual room with a view can be a motivator to health when body weakens and social determinants falter, laying the re-building blocks of resilience. That in essence is what the inner space of arts in health can do too, and it is why it has been my ‘special chosen subject’ these last twenty-five years. It seems that in the pestle of my body I am grinding together aesthetics and pharmacology, and here comes a different aroma. It is exciting for me to sense a point of connection between my current treatment and my long-held affirmation, ever since reading health philosopher David Seedhouse’s Health: The Foundations for Achievement (1981), of health as ‘creative potential’.
Yet the inherent strengths in socially engaged arts have been disqualified for evidence-based health policy, perhaps because the deep immersion conveyed through the testimony of participants in creative activities to improve health is undervalued by the proponents of evidence-based policy whose evaluation criteria ignore the real gems embedded beyond the ‘gold standard’ of clinically proven benefit. Much thanks, then, to the emergent thinking in medical humanities that is helping us validate the phenomenological findings and reveal transformational effects in both individuals and communities.
A need in arts in health to search for longitudinal evidence through passionate practice suggests to me why I am still in this for the long haul. Meanwhile I get well, I hope. The scans encourage and the seal barks to order. Here I am again in the chemo circus, beating my flippers on this sphere of being whilst balancing a ball on my nose. And for my next trick…