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By Claire Critchley on

Cancer Revolution: This is OUR story

Community Partnerships Producer Claire Critchley looks at how our exhibition Cancer Revolution: Science, innovation and hope has inspired a community group of writers to tell their stories.

Please note, Cancer Revolution: Science, innovation and hope ended at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester on 27 March 2022. It will be on display at the Science Museum in London from 25 May 2022 – January 2023. For more information, visit the Science Museum website.


When I try to tell people about my treatment, they never believe me when I try to explain what I had to wear. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it in the exhibition. I just had to take a photo with it.

A woman in an orange t-shirt looking at medical equipment in a glass cabinet
Julie with a Radiotherapy Shell identical to the one she wore during her cancer treatment.
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

This is what Julie Al-Zoubi said as she saw the Radiotherapy Shell in the Cancer Revolution: Science, innovation and hope exhibition. Julie was visiting with the Maggie’s Creative Writing Group. Maggie’s is a cancer support centre offering a range of support to the families and those affected by cancer in Greater Manchester. The writing group was set up to support people as part of their treatment, connect with others and express themselves. The group were invited as special guests to see the exhibition where their poetry book In Our Own Words is on display.

A group of people looking at a museum Explainer
Maggie’s creative writers seeing the In Our Own Words book, containing their poems, in the exhibition for the first time.
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

In Our Own Words is a collection of poems sharing the voices of those affected by cancer in Greater Manchester written by the Creative Writing Group. The poems reveal the very personal journeys of being diagnosed with cancer or losing a loved one to the disease.

The poetry book has been included in the exhibition and added to the museum’s collection, through the new Community Partnership team. Our team’s job is to deepen the museum’s connection with the wider city through working in partnership with community groups, particularly those who might be less likely to visit us. We do this through a combination of activities and workshops out and about across the city and collaborative projects like this one to better understand how science shapes people’s lives.

When the Maggie’s Creative Writing Group visited the exhibition, they were reminded of how much they had overcome and, in some cases, were still overcoming. The exhibition inspired them to write even more poetry, including this by Sara Pownall:

Revolution

I ask for a revolution

Where there are more treatments around

Where there’s hope to be found

 

I ask for a revolution

Where there’s more innovation

Where there’s less isolation

 

I ask for a revolution

Where it’s not one in two

Where it’s not me or you.

 

The hope that Sara writes about here has been a sentiment echoed by many of the visitors to the exhibition. Leaving visitors with a sense of hope and a better understanding of cancer were priorities for everyone who put the exhibition together.

The museum worked with a patient and scientist panel to support the design of the exhibition. The members of the panel were particularly keen to ensure that any community activities and events helped people have better cancer conversations, to support a legacy for the exhibition.

As part of this project, a copy of the book is now in libraries throughout the 10 Greater Manchester boroughs. This means it is accessible to over 2 million people for free, for years to come. It is hoped the poems can help others affected by cancer relate to the thoughts and experiences Maggie’s wrote about, and particularly in communities where cancer is still a taboo.

The book is also important to the Science Museum Group’s permanent collection as it captures what was like to be diagnosed and treated for cancer within the COVID-19 pandemic. In her poem, ‘This Is My Story’, Debi Piper shares her experience being diagnosed during that time and recalls ‘Sad reassuring smiles, Behind masks, On my own. Very alone.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer research and treatment that needs to be captured for future generations. Whilst Cancer Revolution has been a world-first exhibition for this museum, it is hoped that it won’t be the last on either the science behind the fight against this disease or the lives it impacts.

The real success of this exhibition will ultimately be felt in the conversations it inspires. If any one of the 30,000 visitors has a more informed chat about cancer, or any one borrows In Our Own Words from Greater Manchester libraries and feels less alone in their experience of cancer, then the exhibition and working with this special group of people has been a success.

I’d like to leave you with Debi Piper’s beautiful and poignant poem, because, after all, ultimately, this is her and our story, not just the museum’s.

This is my story

Global pandemic summer,

Peaceful days, manual labour –

Hands put to task, found a lump.

Left breast, rounded corners,

Solid. Unyielding.

Merry spikes of pain.

 

The sun shines,

The flowers explode

My mind chews the nugget –

It can’t be ignored.

I confide in my friends,

My partner,

The doctor.

 

I walk to the hospital,

Bouncing along paths in shorts and vest.

Hot, oven breezes.

I am fit, I feel healthy,

Don’t worry about things

That may never happen.

 

Things happen.

 

The results are in It’s not good.

Sad reassuring smiles

Behind masks.

On my own. Very alone.

54 years of vitality, smashed.

Surprised? No, not really.

Why not me? Why not you?

This is just an inconvenience.

Time to dig deep, crack on.

 

Close friends and family rally, team Lester kicks in.

A new world of sharp scratches,

Skilful, empathetic nurses.

On the ward, I love everybody I meet,

But I don’t want to be here.

 

Toxins fed through a tube

Who knew? The magic juice of life,

I’m feeling closer to death than I ever have.

I’m between whizzing around cleaning at 3 am

And lying on a sofa, inanimate, green of gills,

Diet of Hula Hoops and pineapple juice.

 

Level one complete

Weak body, frozen mind.

Fabulous news

An almost complete response

It’s real, but none of this feels real.

Next level.

 

Tummy tit.

Technical name.

Mastectomy followed by

DIEP Flap reconstruction

The A team at work.

Go to sleep with a rotten boob,

Wake up with a perkier new one.

Waves of gratitude, ripples of pain.

 

Positive outlook, stutters, returns

Since the start of this sh—show

My bones have told me I’m going to be okay

Whatever the outcome.

I lost control and have learned to let go,

Grasping at life is different to living it.

 

Treatment lingers,

But the prognosis is good,

Clear margins,

Clear lymph nodes,

Mind cleansed.

 

Cancer is a fairground,

Roller coaster of emotions,

Waltzers of dizzying information,

Merry-go-rounds of old friends getting off

And new ones getting on.

 

Opportunities arise,

I’ve learned to say yes –

This life is far too precious to say no.

The Maggie’s on the Runway extravaganza,

New experiences, new friends.

Another positive from the negative.

Heartfelt thanks. Hard felt life.

 

— Debi Piper

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