Photo by Brandy Kiger | Helen Worley sits with her friend, Nutmeg, who was an essential member of her healing team as she walked through two separate instances of cancer. Nutmeg was a gift from a friend.
Helen Worley tries to see the beauty in all things – even cancer.
It’s quite ambitious, seeing as the author and artist has dealt with more than her fair share of the illness. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, she went through a lumpectomy and radiation treatments, 35 of them over seven weeks, only to find lung cancer waiting just on the other side. The second diagnosis came in 2011.
“My heart just sunk,” the Vancouver native said. “I was holding the telephone [when I found out]. I just cried and ran for my husband. Just the enormity of it was definitely a blow.”
Her first husband, Colin, had also dealt with the disease. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1991, he went through three bouts of it before dying in 1998.
“I had to find something positive in it,” Worley said of her own struggle, and that she did. She took her experience with the disease, turned lemons into lemonade, and wrote a book called “Hope Lives in a Garden: A Tale of Whimsey and Healing,” which was illustrated by local artist Georgia Donovan. A gift from a friend, a sweet little stuffed monkey with a nutmeg-scented beanbag inside, became the tangible inspiration for the book.
This newfound friend, whom she named Nutmeg, was a source of strength and an integral part of her journey back to health. Appointed a member of her healing team, the monkey accompanied Worley to all of her treatments and appointments, and added that touch of whimsy to the ordeal that Worley needed. He even got his own hospital ID band to make sure he wouldn’t get lost while Worley went through treatments.
With so much experience under his belt, it was only natural that when it came time to write her mini-memoir that the story would be told from the perspective of the stuffed talisman who had been by her side every step of the way. The work, which chronicles Worley’s treatments, recovery and pursuit of hope, challenges the all-too-common metaphor of approaching cancer as if it were a battle, turning to the idea of nourishing a garden instead.
“Battle is a win-lose situation, and this isn’t win-lose,” Worley said. “We all live with all sorts of things. But gardens, they have cycles.”
An avid gardener, the new metaphor quickly took root for Worley, and she discovered it was the perfect way to approach her journey.
“Cancer is like a weed,” Worley writes in her book. “Surgery is a weeding operation [that gets] rid of the choking weed so that the garden can flourish. We’ll fertilize with fresh air and exercise and good food and the garden will be restored.”
“Gardens are places of beauty and strength, constantly changing and being renewed. That’s how I like to think of myself,” Worley continues. “Never static, always growing, resilient and full of life – and ready to blossom.”
Worley set out to make her book lighthearted and simple. “It was a deliberate choice,” she said. “When you’re confronted with something like this you read everything. This is a simple tale people can pick up and put down. It’s not dense.”
Worley has come to terms with her experiences and even finds herself grateful for the breast cancer. “If I hadn’t had it, they wouldn’t have found the lung cancer,” she said. The lung cancer was caught early.
The experience of overcoming the disease has influenced Worley’s perspective on life. But even that has done little to slow her down. What’s next? “Living. That’s what is next.”
While she is more prone to take the time to send a note, make a phone call or drop in to visit now, she’s not yet ready to be still. Instead, she has big plans to continue traveling with her husband LeRoy across the globe – her next stop is New Zealand – and to write about and photograph the world around her.
“I do tend to keep busy,” she said.
Worley has another memoir in the works, a longer piece that details her experiences as a caregiver and the realization that she had to learn to take care of herself first so that she could be available to be a support for her husband during his sickness.
“It’s like what the flight attendants say,” she said. “‘Put the oxygen mask on your own face first and then help the person next to you.’ There’s a reason you do it in that order, and it applies to caregiving. All those things that we classify as selfish are very real needs. I was able to care for Colin because I took the time to care for myself.”
Having put it on the shelf to write “Hope Lives in a Garden,” Worley plans to dust the manuscript off and devote some time to working on it now that the smaller book has been published and her cancer has been managed. A lifelong photographer, she has plans to work on her art as well.
“I was encouraged quite a few years ago [to show my work],” she said. “So, I screwed up my courage, learned to frame and started to exhibit.” Chuckling at the memory, she said, “People would buy it; it was amazing.” She’s moved on to giclee on canvas now, her preferred presentation style, and an exhibit of her work is on display at Peace Arch City Cafe.
“It’s just what I see. I’m fascinated by stones and sand and boats. And I love the shoreline and the sea and our impact on it,” she said of her work. “I try to see the magnificent in ordinary.”
Worley’s photography will be on display at Peace Arch City Cafe until mid-November. Her book, “Hope Lives in a Garden,” is available for purchase at Bay Medical Center in Blaine and Village Books in Bellingham, and all proceeds will be directed to support for people living with cancer and to research into its causes and cures. There will be a book signing at Village Books in Bellingham at 7 p.m. Monday, November 12. For more information, visit helenworley.com.