October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month as well as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. For artist and PLICA Ambassador Janet Ambrose, October packs a double punch. Compounding the trauma of being involuntarily childless, Janet’s experience of breast cancer threw her world into chaos. Dealing with remote cancer treatment and the isolation of living in Australia’s Far North Queensland presented the artist with a unique set of emotional challenges. Creativity and art have proved invaluable in the integration of loss and in her journey towards recovery – both from cancer and also the grief of wanting but not having children. Janet’s most recent exhibition Conversations with South Sea Islanders illuminates historical and contemporary nuances around cultural and racial issues - something that, like the great divide between those who long for children they don’t have and those who do, is much in need of repair.
In Janet's Words
What is it like as someone who has experienced breast cancer, involuntary childlessness, and rural isolation?
Well, if I didn’t feel isolated before I certainly do now. I found going through treatment for breast cancer, the breast care nurses would suggest I catch up with family because it would "be good for you." I’d reply that I don’t have family close nor my own, and their reaction was always to change the subject, to talk about something else, or ignore the issue. I began asking them about support groups that I might be able to get involved in, but these were for either young mothers or older women who constantly talked about their children or grandchildren. I gave up in the end and stayed home and stopped calling the nurses. The breast care nurses were great, however I felt I have received very little support from them or other survivors as I found they were so involved in their own families there wasn’t time for anything else. I am lucky I like my own company but there are times where I wish I could fit in somewhere. We live remotely in Far North Queensland and not having the same energy levels as I did for the drive into town makes it difficult.
I think as time has gone on I manage myself pretty well. I don’t expect any support or empathy because I have never received it. This may sound cynical but people seem so self-absorbed I don’t think they notice anymore, and I certainly don’t bring it up. In many respects, I gave up trying to find my tribe years ago, although I did start a support group on BCNA (Breast Cancer Network Australia) called Breast Cancer, Childlessness and Us, and we have nearly 50 members. The involuntary childless are a growing demographic yet still we are seen but not heard. People are almost challenged by us. It’s so weird.
What does this do to your mental state and how have you managed to get through?
What this does is it affects your confidence in lots of ways around other women. Not men, they I have found are far more sensitive creatures than women. I get the, “oh I only have to walk past my husband, and I am pregnant!" Isn’t that the same as saying, "I have a large dick?” My own family are insensitive, especially my husband’s family. They expect me to fall in and keep my mouth shut basically.
Are there triggers? How do you manage?
My triggers are those random conversations with again, women who know I don’t have children who talk about their children or grandchildren and I sit there like I am not present. I can’t add to the conversation, but they continue on anyway. I usually sit silently until they finish, or I start looking beyond them at the scene around me. If I am in a certain mood I will dig at them lightly, sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. I figure, "well, you aren’t thinking of my feelings here, so deal with this."
Has your experience informed your spirituality?
I am not sure on this one. I think I have a much stronger person for this experience. I don’t suffer fools lightly never have. I have more strength and resilience than anyone I know, and I was told once that at the end of the day, if you line up six women at a nursing home and one hasn’t had children, she will be the one who can keep herself busy. It’s a learned experience. If that is spiritual not sure, I am more of a pragmatic person. I also think as I get older the more grounded I feel about it, somehow it sits better with me. I can walk away if I don’t like someone’s comment. I draw from my life experiences to get me through the tough times.
What are your thoughts on legacy and getting older without children?
I worry about where I might live getting older. My neighbours keep to themselves pretty much. I wonder where I might end up sometimes. The recent news of the lady who showed up at the Nambour hospital not knowing who she is, is something I wonder about. I won’t have that support from family. The perception of older childless women is a bit odd, not very favourable toward what we are, strong, independent, resilient people!
Does your art help you? If so how?
Creating my art is like having children in a way, they are creations from me. I am lucky to have the time to do it more now and my progress has even surprised me. My mother always said I would get frustrated if I couldn’t do what I wanted to when I wanted, she’s probably right. But this comes from my experience of having to keep myself amused.
Any thoughts on being childless and your experience and thoughts in relation to Covid?
Again I think if you have your health you’re halfway there. It would be difficult in my place of living being so far from the nearest hospital. I don’t really think about it because of our remoteness.
What do you hope to bring to your role as a PLICA Ambassador?
I get a little annoyed when I hear women complaining about not being able to do anything like exercise when quite clearly they need to exercise in order to keep themselves in good health, if that doesn’t sound too nasty! It’s the result of having to cope ourselves I think, it makes you strive to keep yourself tidy for the future. They are quite dependent on others; I feel lucky that I am not dependant on other people.
What I would like to bring as a PLICA Ambassador is to bring awareness that not all of us are the same and we all bring to the table valuable assets. I would like to bring awareness of the statistics of childlessness now: for whatever reason, we are a demographic! An ignored demographic at that.
Find Out More
Why not say hello to Janet over at Instagram and see some more of her art?
You can find her at: Janet on Insta