Power Portraits

For twenty five years I have made it my mission to provide women going through breast cancer with the important evidence about diet and lifestyle that the NHS seems to ignore. Naively, I hoped that my role would eventually become redundant as the oncology service became more enlightened. In fact, progress has been slow and, while science has continued to support a fundamental role for nutrition, the evidence is wilfully ignored. I’m going to be honest and say: it makes me angry.

Normalising Nutrition

So – while my day job as a nutritional therapist continues to be all about helping individual women to understand what they can do to improve their situation, to better withstand treatment, and make a full recovery – my mission remains to normalise the provision of evidence-based diet and lifestyle advice at diagnosis, and to foster a two-way respect between oncologists and their patients.

But I would go further than that. While it is, of course, important for professional advice to be safe and reliable, I believe we also need to revise our attitudes to patient involvement. Experience has shown me that cancer patients often have strong inner voices telling them to change their lifestyles both before and after diagnosis. We don’t really have the right words to describe this phenomenon – the best we can come up with is instinct, or intuition, but it is most definitely a form of knowledge that arises from inside us and urges us to change. Although we don’t currently track a wide range of diet and lifestyle factors, we know they play a fundamental role in outcomes. From the ‘perfect Paula’ who is 100% happy to put complete trust their oncologist, and whose faith in medicine is in itself a powerful placebo, to the ‘awkward Annie’ who is determined to question every drug and dose and take a bucketful of supplements every day while balancing on one leg, and whose independent thinking creates another form of healing power, we all approach cancer in our different ways, and play a role in our own outcomes.

I really want to celebrate the amazing ingenuity and resilience of the women I work with, I want people who read the blog to be blown away by their commitment and courage, and I want to transform the blinkered and one-sided way we currently deal with cancer, and I’ve been wondering how to do it without falling foul of the 1939 Cancer Act.

Sharing Support

In my free time, I paint a bit – you can see my work here – and I have formed a plan to paint portraits of breast cancer patients and survivors to highlight the unique nature of each patient journey, their self-care choices, and overall approach to recovery. My vision is to create a wealth of support and validation for women facing the biggest challenge of their lives, and to draw attention to the wonderful pool of wisdom and warmth that I have discovered through my work. The portraits will be displayed on a new website and, I hope, eventually, in a ‘real’ exhibition. The collection will build into an inspiring blog resource for other women, and help to improve the general understanding of the range of complementary therapies and self-guided healing activities available in addition to conventional treatment.

I started the project with a self-portrait and found that very difficult. I’ve never enjoyed looking at photographs of myself, and I’m viciously self-critical of my body. Despite being a nutritional therapist for 20 years I’ve never lost my Pooh Bear-like stature, and just lately I seem to be adding a chin for every year. But this is not a beauty pageant – at least not in the way that we normally understand that term – it’s about strength and resilience, and courage, and the sort of beauty that takes years to develop. So please, please, please don’t bypass this project because you don’t like the way you look, that’s really not the point. Plus you can choose the composition you want – we can make it really personal. And don’t worry – you don’t have to take your clothes off – unless you want to. Here’s what will happen…

Moving Pictures

When you book this session I will send you some questions about your cancer journey and I will use your answers to write a blog piece that accompanies the photo. If you have done any genetic testing, you can choose whether or not we include any information about that too. You can also choose whether your name is included with the portrait, or not. And we can make the painting more or less recognisable by choosing a realistic or more impressionistic style. It’s very much your call.

I started doing Zoom and Facebook portraits during lockdown and I have found it a great way to capture people in a non self-conscious way. During the course of a 45 minute session, we will talk about your journey, your choices, and I will take a few screenshots – so please choose a well-lit room. But it doesn’t have to be a current image. You can choose a favourite photograph from any time in your life that symbolises your journey. As long as the colours and light look good then it will make a good image. So, after the session, when you return the questionnaire, please feel free to send me some ideas to help me create a meaningful composition.

The finished physical portrait will be yours to keep but the right to use the digital image to promote my work will rest with me. Your contribution will help to pay for the materials and for the creation of the blog.