BELOIT - Highlighting October as breast cancer awareness month, Beloiter Nancy Mayhew credits qigong, art and a yearly mammogram for her success battling the disease.
After enduring a harrowing year, she said her art is stronger as well as her resolve to help others struggling with cancer.
Mayhew is a mosaic artist who sells her works at the Beloit Farmers Market and who will be the featured artist at the Beloit Art Center show in November. She also teaches qigong, a moving meditation including breath and balance work which originated in China thousands of years ago.
This October marks a year since Mayhew was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram. After the mammogram showed a small spot on her breast, she had a nagging feeling it would be cancer. She was right.
After a biopsy, she was presented with the option of having a lumpectomy with radiation or mastectomy without radiation. She went ahead with a full mastectomy on Dec. 20, hoping to avoid radiation. Not interested in reconstructive surgery, she hoped her bout with cancer might be over for good after the mastectomy.
She was battling depression over her diagnosis as she knew how brutal the disease could be. She had cared for her sister, Sheila Ciaramita, before she passed away from uterine cancer six years ago at age 60.
Mayhew had many setbacks. After her mastectomy, it was determined she had cancer at stage 1b in a couple of her lymph nodes, and she would have to undergo radiation after all.
Although everyone reacts to radiation differently, it was an excruciating experience for Mayhew who suffered from intense physical pain. She had an intensive three-week round of radiation which she is still recovering from.
"It takes your skin and makes it feel like it's glued to your bones," Mayhew said.
During her radiation treatments last December, she had to hold her arm out from her body for months as her underarm area became so swollen.
She was disappointed with the only two options for pain relief, Tylenol or oxycodone. She carefully rationed her oxycodone, fearful of becoming addicted. She said she wished medical marijuana would have been an option as it would have been much safer and less addictive. It's an option she hopes is available for more cancer patients in the future.
As a mosaic artist, it also became increasingly difficult to do her work as her pectoral muscles were too sore to allow her to push down on the materials to make mosaic pieces.
This challenge forced her to create a new way to do art. Instead of cutting glass by pressing on it, she started cutting it with a hammer. She also began incorporating pieces she wouldn't have to cut such as shells, nails, keys, twigs, fossils and gems. She called her new line of pieces Earth Elements as they contained representations of the five Chinese elements of stone, water, metal, wood and fire.
Faced with the possibility of shrinking time, she dove deeper into her dreams of being an artist.
"I totally believe if you put your dreams out there God presents. He brought a different art to me," Mayhew said. "I have created hundreds of pieces since I got diagnosed. My family is in shock of where these ideas are coming from and how I'm doing this."
Despite her success, Mayhew struggled with her physical therapy having difficulty lifting her arm. However, she found she could move more freely when doing qigong.
"My occupational therapist told me because of my qigong I'm six months out from radiation but my body is a year out from radiation," Mayhew said.
These days Mayhew is still recovering. She takes an anti-estrogen pill, green tea extracts, turmeric and vitamin D as well as eats cruciferous vegetables.
Always with a can-do attitude, she invented a makeshift device to rub on her back to push the lymphatic fluid away from under her arm to her back to make her underarm swelling go down. She has toyed with the idea of getting a patent on the item.
She teaches qigong at the Stateline Family YMCA in Beloit at 10:30 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. Starting Monday, she will teach a class for beginners at 11:30 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays at the Y. She also teaches free classes at the Beloit Cancer Center for cancer patients and a caregiver at 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Wednesday. If someone doesn't have cancer, it's $50 for eight classes.
Mayhew lives in Beloit with husband, Jerry Mayhew. Her son, Chris Mayhew, is a real estate agent in Janesville, and her daughter Sommer Biffle is a mosaic and glass artist in Colorado.
She is also participating in breast cancer study at Mayo Clinic, which is being conducted in hopes fewer women will get breast cancer and those who do will have better and less radical treatments.
She still gets days when she gets discouraged and loses patience, but turns to qigong and art to be creative and flexible.
"The Chinese say, 'stand like a mountain, move like a river'," she said.