Utah Woman Creates Quilt Journals After Cancer Diagnosis
OGDEN, Utah — Judy Elsley shares a story with the one in eight American women who develops breast cancer in her lifetime. What’s different about Elsley’s story, though, is how she tells it – with quilts.
Cancer first showed up in 2011, Elsley said. It didn’t appear on an MRI, but on a series of dyed fabric quilts with angry red circles in a sea of green and yellow.
“It wasn’t until after I was diagnosed that I recognize these as cancer cells,” Elsley said. She said her body was speaking to her.
Elsley, an Egnlish professor and writer, was diagnosed with breast cancer and prescribed a course of chemotherapy.
She was too weak to journal during her treatment, so she told her story on a series of nine quilt “journals.”
Each day she wrote on one square of fabric and stitched the pieces together during her treatment.
“I have no choice but to live with this, whatever it is,” she wrote in early 2012.
“This is a gift,” she added later on. “I just don’t understand how yet.”
“I wanted my life to be documented,” she said. “I mean, it may be one small life, but it was important to me that there was written documentation of who I was and where I wasn’t what I did.”
Elsley said many 18th and 19th century women made quilts but never signed them. She said she didn’t want to lead an anonymous life.
The nine quilts eventually grew to 20 – a quilt of words of encouragement, a quilt of her fears and another with an Anna Quindlen quote about inner strength.
There has to be a point to getting sick, she said.
“If I’m not learning something from an illness, then what’s the point of that illness?” Elsley asked.
Her first bout with cancer — she got Hodgkin’s disease when she was in her 20s — taught her to take risks.
“I learned what we all learn at some point, which is that we will die that we are mortal,” she said. “And that if there are things that I wanted to do that I better get on and do them.”
That’s why she left her native England and came to the United States.
This time, she said, cancer taught her gratitude, especially for the family and friends who nursed her back to health.
One of her quilts, entitled “It takes a village to heal a sick person,” lists the people in her “village.”
“I realized in sickness that I was dependent on a lot of other people, my medical support, my husband, my friends who cooked for me, people who took me from one place to another when I couldn’t drive,” Elsley said.
“I have a group of longterm women friends who are my lifelong sisters,” she said. “And these are women who are essential to my wellbeing.”
“Breast cancer taught me that I am part of a big social web,” she said.
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