Carla McGuire trusts her intuition.
Since she was six years old, she knew she would be an artist in Maine.
She knew when it was time to show up for her own art show, for the first time, ever.
And she knew when she had cancer. Even when others didn’t agree.
Carla’s cancer journey – which forever changed the way she sees herself – began in September of 2015.
“That’s when I noticed a dimple on my breast,” said the 59-year-old artist and mother, who lives in Hallowell, outside Augusta, Maine. “I knew it wasn’t right.”
But her doctor believed it was scar tissue from a long-ago breast reduction surgery. As her breast began to hurt, and the dimple took on an “orange peel” look, Carla knew better.
She asked a nurse whether she should seek a second opinion, and received a recommendation: go to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. She quickly underwent an exam, MRI and biopsy. On New Year’s Day, she had a party with her friends, to help her wait. Confirmation came the next day.
“I was not surprised,” she remembered. “When I first saw the MRI, it was lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Her doctor wanted to do surgery right away. But she asked for a little more time, “to do end-of-life things.”
Carla has an adult son with disabilities and she wanted to make sure everything was in order.
She had her breast removed in early January, followed by chemo at the Harold Alfond Cancer Center. Then, she opted to have her other breast removed, to lessen her risk. When the same cancer cells were found in her second breast, she knew it was the right choice.
She refused radiation, which her friends protested, she said. But with 24 lymph nodes removed from her first breast, she was worried about lymphedema, among other potential complications.
So, she made the call. “It’s your gut,” she said. She’s now in remission.
Following her gut is a theme for Carla. About 14 years ago, she moved with her son from Ottawa, Illinois, – outside Chicago – to Maine, following her childhood dream
She’s built a loving network in Hallowell, which has supported her through cancer. Friends sat with her, brought food, shoveled snow and even helped pay her rent. Her best friend came up from Connecticut, going with her to treatments, taking notes during appointments and asking the important questions as “chemo brain” took over. Her friend even shaved her head, as she lost her hair.
A sales representative for a local newspaper, Carla had to take a break from work, which caused a financial strain, despite short-term disability coverage. Support from the Maine Breast Cancer Coalition and the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, which came through the cancer center’s social work team, helped.
Last Christmas, Carla collected money to buy grocery gift cards for other cancer patients – helping others as she’d been helped.
This fall, she staged an art show, depicting and telling her cancer journey story.
In the past, she’d declined to attend any shows which included her work. But this time, she was ready. She called it “Chapter 59 – My Way,” in celebration of her birthday. And she donated some of the proceeds to JAF and the Coalition.
The show was a huge success, she said. Her art hung next to vignettes, some of which she created during a cancer support writing group. People bought paintings like crazy. She could barely keep up.
“It was a blur,” she said. “My friends had to tell me what happened afterwards. It was awesome.”
Now, Carla is again facing health issues. She has ongoing headaches, and is working to find a neurologist. She’s not sure what’s going on, but she’s grounded in her art, her community and the deep knowledge that she can advocate for herself.
She’s already planning a “Chapter 60” art show. And she’s working on a book, based on her cancer art show.
She’s shared her entire journey, on Facebook, with friends and through her art and writing, she said. Even when people didn’t know what to say, she talked through it. And she kept her sparkle and sense of humor.
“My confidence is there now.”