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Sweatpants & Soul | Feeling Chemotherapy

By Melissa McAllister

It was January 2014.  In the shower, Nisha Sondhe felt something every woman dreads.  There it was.  A lump in her breast.  Thoughts of her mother flashed before her.  Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the very same age.  Nisha would soon learn that the lump in her breast was ,in fact, breast cancer.

A Stage 2 diagnosis with lymph node involvement meant surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation were coming down the pike, all of which would keep her in treatment until the Fall of 2014.  She was only 43, young by any measure.  Surgery induced what is known as lymphedema (a serious consequence of lymph node removal) and ironically, the process of saving our bodies from cancer often requires a regular stream of poison flowing into our veins.  Chemotherapy lasted the summer and daily radiation followed in the fall.  As cancer patients, we shed so much of ourselves and hope beyond hope that we can heal and be well again.

Despite being inclined to look for humor in the absurdity of life, when chemotherapy started, humor was hard to find for Nisha.  Ever-determined to find the light in the dark, she documented her experience on paper and in pixels.  Notes and photographs would preserve this period of her life and in 2016 she published a series of photos depicting what it was like to endure chemotherapy.  Anyone who has experienced chemotherapy will see themselves in her captures of emotions and sensations, conveyed with the help of sideshow and burlesque performers.  Her documentation of events has even inspired her to write a burlesque play about the experience.

Nisha is currently NED (no evidence of disease) and hopes to greatly reduce the chances of her cancer returning by taking a daily hormone blocker known as Tamoxifen (a drug that comes with a long list of side-effects).  She lives in Brooklyn, New York but wanders frequently.  You can find her capturing life through her lens at nishasondhe.com.

Eat

“For this photo, I surrounded my friend Akynos with all the foods I wanted to eat and the only food I wanted to eat during chemo was pizza, turkey sandwiches, and tons of licorice.”

Cry

“I smeared makeup from her eyes to capture my sadness.  All I ever felt like doing was crying.  But there were days when I was too tired to even cry.”

Trap

“My friend Albert is an amazing escape artist so he was perfect for this shot.  Chemo made me feel trapped in my body.  All I wanted to do was escape.  To be free.  But I couldn’t.”

Run

“I chose my friend Cuchie for this photo because she had this incredible outfit for The Coney Island Seahorse & Mermaid Day Parade.  I just wanted to run away.  I wanted to go to Coney Island and run to the water’s edge and wash the cancer away.”

Burn

“I felt like an oven.  You know when you turn on a gas oven and from the inside, it just heats up?  I felt constant heat.  I took this photo of my friend Nelson who is also a cancer survivor.  We call ourselves the chemo twins.  This photo, unlike any other, was a collaboration.”

Hurt

“I felt like there was a thistle plant growing inside me, puffing out smoke.  I tasted nothing but soot.  I had this feeling like my whole insides were covered in the black, soft, silty soot like that’s left after a campfire.  And when my tongue and finger nails turned black, it felt like I was right. Like just under the surface was soot, and my insides were covered in it.  So, for this shot, we covered my friend Betty Bloomers with black powdered sugar.  She looked just like I felt during chemotherapy.”

Scream

“When I was in yoga I just wanted to scream. So, I had my friend Sister Selva really scream for this shot – not just pretend. I told her to scream like she was on fire.  And she did. I think if the photo shoot had lasted any longer the neighbors would have come knocking or sent the police.”

Fear

“Fear is my favorite photo.  I came to the cancer table with arthritis, so the bone pain I got from the Neulasta shots was extra special. Neulasta… ugh evil. It still triggers fear in me. Just seeing an ad for it will make me a little shaky. And the needles.  It never seemed to go right.  The repeated attempts to get the IV in became something I would dread.  For this shot, I wanted to somehow get people to feel the emotion of fear. And since everyone thinks clowns are terrifying (and he happens to be a clown) I went with it.  He rode the subway to my place just like that (in the makeup from his show the night before) and when I opened the door, I thought to myself – perfect!”

Wait

“My friend Aurora is such an amazing performance artist. If there was any way these could be performance pieces, she would convey perfectly the boredom that I had during chemo. I’m never bored. I’m always into some mischief, so waiting for the chemo to end was absolutely roll-your-eyes-annoying.”

Hallucinate

“People would just appear to be outlines. I would look at faces – remember that A-ha video, where he would go in and out of drawings? It was like that. This photo is the one that I take with me. This is the one that changed the way I see things and is why I added all the Photoshopping and comic book lines over my work. This is what it was like looking through my eyes at people. I wanted to make my friend Dangrrr into a comic book character, so we pillaged her cosplay collection and ta-da, it came together!”

Melissa McAllister is a creative introvert who mistakenly thought she was an extrovert. A seeker of sorts and purveyor of “me toos”. When she’s not writing – she’s loving on her peeps and furbabies. Friendship, nature and a good antidepressant are her lifesavers.

This piece was originally published on The Underbelly, a magazine dedicated to telling the real stories of women living with breast cancer, especially the ones you never hear about. It’s a space created to empower women by shining a light on their experiences in an effort to eradicate shame, to connect those who might feel isolated and to advocate for meaningful change in the breast cancer community. For more information, visit their website or find them on Facebook.

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