When Wendy Burton was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she understood that she could very well be in the fight of her life, but she hated the warrior imagery that surrounded the diagnosis. Phrases such as "fight the disease, kill the cancer, annihilate the bad cells" disturbed her on a deep level. "Some people use warrior imagery to get through cancer," says Burton, "and that’s fine for people who need that kind of imagery. But for me, I was put off by it. I didn’t want to feel like I was at war with my body. I wanted to love, support, and cajole, but I didn’t want to take aim at myself."
Burton, a freelance literary agent, book designer, and photographer, also was aware of the highly powerful mind-body connection athletes use to maximize their performance, using a very focused image of their body achieving an exact and precise result, whether in hitting a golf ball, executing a dive, or vaulting off the balance beam. Burton’s answer to her cancer was to use that positive-mind body connection to embrace not the illness but the journey and to exert some control in a situation over which she otherwise may have felt powerless.
Her book, "Joy is a Plum Colored Acrobat," is a collection of 45 life-affirming visualizations meant to be a companion for women diagnosed with breast cancer and for those who love them. The acrobats were born in Burton’s vivid imagination – tiny Cirque Du Soleil acrobats leaping through her body, sweeping away her cancer cells. "I wanted to celebrate my body and equip it with lively, lovely, colorful helpers to accompany me on the way to wellness. They could take care of the cancer just as well as an arsenal of Uzis."
Burton is already thinking about writing yet another book, a book of visualizations that could be applied to personal and professional as well as medical situations in everyday life. She presents a workshop called "The Power of Visualizations and Trusting Your Imagination" at the RWJ Hamilton Center for Health and Wellness, in Hamilton on Friday, October 21. The evening is sponsored by Friends’ Health Connection and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. Burton will present different types of visualizations captured in the book.
Burton says: "I want to make two points clear. By using visualizations you can make a very frightening and sterile environment – the medical environment where you don’t have a lot of control – into a place where you can take control. The
rooms are intimidating and so is the machinery. By using visualizations, you can take hold of that environment and colorize it any way you wish and make it safe and comfortable. You do that in your own mind. And that gives you power in an environment where you feel like you don’t have any power."
Two of her favorite lines in the book are about embracing that power, or as Burton calls it, "being able to turn the angles of your mind to say, ‘I didn’t ask for this to happen but it’s here and I have to embrace it.’" In her Prayer for an Open Heart, for example, she writes: "We don’t need to be victims. We can be explorers instead." In the visualization titled A Wheat-Colored Field, she declares that with a deep, deep breath, "like Amelia Earhart, I will strap on my aviator’s cap and fly willingly into the unknown." It is accompanied by an illustration of a girl with long, brown hair in a crimson dress standing with feet firmly planted in a golden field and arms stretching out toward the sky, embrace and challenge both in her posture.
The book is full of such pictures that engage the reader with each page: bright, beach umbrellas that protect the good cells; gigantic pink flamingoes, whose wings cast a deep protective shadow over them; even hula dancers, who "with each powerful rotation of their hips, knock the hypnotized cancer cells out of my body and into the blue Pacific."
The illustrations were created by Simona Mulazzani, an artist in Italy who Burton found after months of research as she looked for just the right illustrator. Mulazzani spoke no English but her husband did, so Burton would send a copy of the words to Mulazzani’s husband, who would translate them for his wife. In the book the illustrations are accompanied by short, verbal passages that can be read as meditation, chant, or even prayer.
Burton grew up in Queens and Great Neck, Long Island. She graduated with a bachelors in fine art from Brandeis University in 1972 and worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1974 to 1975. She began shooting black and white
pictures, photographing mainly around her home in Red Hook, New York, focusing on schoolhouses, farm buildings, cars, and abandoned houses, because she thought they looked like they held "secrets to stories I would like to hear." She has been married eight years to Jeff Brouws, a fine art photographer and non-fiction writer. Together they have designed books and are currently working on a book project combining both their photographs.
Her breast cancer diagnosis two years ago was not part of the couple’s game plan, but once it happened Burton decided that she would be the one to take charge. She says it was listening to a tape of visualizations that sustained her during her radiation treatments. In her book she explains that a social worker at the Dyson Cancer Center at the Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, passed along a meditation tape made by Belleruth Naparstek called "Relaxation and Guided Imagery for Patients Undergoing Radiation Therapy." Burton listened to that tape every day and learned how to relax completely. She also allows that it was easier for her in some ways because her form of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), is a very treatable form and was discovered early.
"That tape got me launched," she says. "I did some work with Pat Burbridge, my social worker. She taught me how to do deep self-hypnosis so I could do these visualizations. These became the tools. When I woke up the morning after my final treatment I wanted to do a book. I felt like I had been given such a gift, and I wanted other people to partake."
Burton worked in the publishing industry for 27 years, including Simon and Schuster for 12 of those years, but never actually thought she would write a book. She discovered, remarkably, that the whole experience of going through breast cancer turned out to be an astonishingly positive and even transformative experience. And so it seemed, in a way, preordained that she would sit down and put it to paper. "I woke up one morning and I told my husband, I’m going to go write a book," says Burton. "I had just finished treatment and everything was still so fresh. I sat down and it just came out. The words seemed to be formed somewhere in my subconscious. My husband does a lot of research for his writing. It’s very exacting. He looked at me one day and said, ‘You’re not writing, you’re channeling.’"
Burton had a deep, personal reservoir of experience and pain from which to pull up her images. Her mother died from stomach cancer about 14 years ago. "She went through that experience with grace. It was arduous," says Burton. Her only
sibling, a brother four years older, survived prostate cancer. He is a rabbi and lives in Manhattan. Burton lost her father, who worked in the music publishing industry, when she was 16 years old. He was 51 when he died of a massive heart attack. Two of the most moving visualizations in her book center on her parents. "It’s wonderful that my parents emerged to give me support. It’s very primal, in a way."
Not all of her visualizations filled her with joy, which alarmed her at first. They included her first connections with her mother. "I got sad because I missed her. But all that grief, it’s not compartmentalized. You’re not sad just because
you want your parents. I’m sad because I can cry about myself. It’s the big grief place."
The floodgates that were released by thinking about her mother also allowed her to grieve a little for herself. "I was sitting there with my eyes closed with tears pouring down my face. I think I cried just once when I got my diagnosis and then I thought okay, I’m going to put on my seat belt with as open a heart as I could bring to it. I didn’t want to be a victim but I needed to grieve more. You need to acknowledge whatever is going on inside of you."
Burton says she is now writing a novel and that too is part of the journey of discovery that her cancer has set her on. "What I discovered is that when I was diagnosed with cancer and ended up writing my first book, it opened up a different channel of expression. I never would have predicted I would have a novel to write either. It may never be published, but I’ve finished a first draft." The book is titled "The Unlikely Adventures of the Burke County Quilting Society." The action takes place during the Korean War in the 1950s in North Dakota, a place where Burton and her husband have spent a lot of time shooting photographs. It’s a place so far north it’s almost in Canada, sadly full of abandoned houses, a favorite subject for Burton’s photography. "On one of our trips I had a thought that the women of this county would pull together when their husbands went off to war. To stay in touch with these men they would tell stories about their husbands. Each panel that the women contributed would tell a story with magical realism and they would sustain each other through their friendship."
Burton hopes that breast cancer patients and those who love them can find comfort in her book. "It’s a tough subject, rightly, so this book is a wonderful gift. It’s non-intrusive. If someone’s diagnosed it can be a gentle companion."
"An Evening of Visualizations for Breast Cancer Patients & Survivors," Friday, October 21, 7 p.m., RWJ Hamilton Center for Health & Wellness, 3100 Quakerbridge Road, Hamilton. Presented by Wendy Burton, breast cancer survivor and author of "Joy Is a Plum-Colored Acrobat." Sponsored by Friends’ Health Connection. Register. $15. 800-483-7436.