An inspirational artist diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 33 has launched the events
A talented artist has sketched stunning portraits from her bedside of the hospital heroes who helped her recover from ovarian cancer.
Gillian McLaren was just 33 when diagnosed with the disease at the height of the first Covid-19 wave last spring. While the nation was in lockdown, she endured surgery, chemotherapy and dozens of tests. Now in remission, Gillian is sharing her inspirational story to help launch Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life events in Scotland. Since drawing in the hospital wards, she’s continued a series, sharing drawings of the medical staff including doctors, cleaners, porters and dieticians at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee who got her through the toughest year of her life.
Gillian, now 34, said: “My drawings, titled ‘Portraits and Tales from a Hospital bed’ portray some of the amazing people who looked after me.
“It’s my tribute to them and a way of thanking them all. The drawings capture a moment in time. There’s a drawing of the porter who brought me an extra blanket to keep me warm, the cleaner with a lavender spray who lifted my spirits and my consultant who always made me feel safe and knew the right thing to say.
“Some people say I’m brave but I’ve not had a choice. I’ve had to get through somehow. There have been many tears along the way. There have been times when words are not even enough to describe what it’s like having cancer. There’s pain and hurt which sometimes is better expressed through art.”
Gillian, who lives in Stirling, knows exactly how vital new breakthroughs and discoveries are to help more people survive cancer. A keen netball player and coach with an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits, Gillian felt at low risk from cancer.
Now she wants to raise awareness of the signs of ovarian cancer, especially in younger women, and help other young people with the disease feel less isolated. Gillian had visited doctors for several years with bowel changes, exhaustion, nausea, pain and what was thought then to be frequent urine infections. In early 2020, a blood test showed that Gillian had a raised level of a molecule called CA125. Until this point her CA125 had not been significantly raised. Women with ovarian cancer tend to have higher levels of CA125 in their blood than women who don’t have the disease.
She recalls vividly the morning of Wednesday 4 March last year when after more scans doctors finally confirmed she had low grade ovarian cancer.
Gillian said: “There’s nothing that prepares you for the words, ‘you have cancer.’
“I was told in a very gentle and sensitive way but it was still a shock. I had always hoped that one day I’d have a family of my own. I was told I’d lose my fertility during treatment. Cancer was threatening my life but it was also taking away my choice to one day have children. That fertility loss felt like a death.
“But the love and support I got from my family and friends in those dark days was phenomenal. It was that love and my Christian faith which carried me through. It was the height of the pandemic, the world felt out of control and I leant in to my faith.”
Gillian was admitted to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary for major abdominal surgery including removal of her womb, ovaries and appendix. But as Covid-19 cases soared across Scotland, it was a hammerblow hours before surgery on 31 March last year when medical staff explained the surgery may not happen.
Gillian said: “The pandemic was at its peak and pressures on the NHS that day meant it was uncertain whether there was an operating theatre available.
“I sat up in bed and fought for that operation with every last bit of energy I had. Covid is awful and was taking lives but cancer also took lives. I was only 33 and had so much to live for. I needed that operation now to give me the best possible chance of surviving.”
The surgery went ahead that day and after several weeks of recovery Gillian started chemotherapy. The four sessions made her long blonde hair fall out.
She moved temporarily to Fife to be closer to family and in December 2020 was admitted to Ninewells Hospital, Dundee with digestive problems and abdominal pain. It was there that she started sketching portraits of the NHS staff who were helping her including her consultant Dr Dorin Ziyaie. And when Gillian was back in hospital in March this year, she completed more drawings.
Gillian said: “The drawings gave my mind something to focus on.
“It’s hard to explain how vulnerable and anxious I felt at that time. Dr Ziyaie the consultant at Ninewells who looked after me was amazing. She’s so skilled and calm.
“And I’m ever grateful to my brilliant oncologist Dr Barbara Stanley, who has supported and guided me through no end of complex medical decisions.
“I speak to my counsellor weekly to help me process everything I’ve been through with cancer. She has undoubtedly been an invaluable support. Art has also been an important part of my therapeutic journey to feeling well again.”
Gillian’s artwork can be seen via her Instagram account @gillyartist and on her website.
And Gillian hopes her story will inspire people to enter a Race for Life event in Scotland this autumn- to raise funds for life-saving research.
Cancer Research UK’s much-loved Race for Life events are returning to Scotland but with socially distanced measures in place to keep participants safe. Events include Race for Life Stirling and Race for Life Fife on August 22, Race for Life Hopetoun House on September 26, Race for Life Irvine on October 17 and Race for Life Edinburgh at Holyrood Park on October 10.
People can visit raceforlife.org to enter. Money raised will help scientists find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, saving lives as the charity fights back from the impact of the pandemic.
In Scotland every year around 32,400 people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland and one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer in their lifetime.
Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, which has been in partnership with Tesco for 20 years, is an inspiring series of 3K, 5K, 10K, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer by funding crucial research.
Money raised through the event series funds world-class research to help beat 200 types of cancer - including bowel cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, brain cancer, children’s cancers and leukaemia.
This year, participants will set off on the Race for Life course either alone or in small, socially distanced groups. Hand sanitiser will also be provided with participants encouraged to use it before and after the event.
Lisa Adams, Cancer Research UK’s spokeswoman for Scotland, said: “We are grateful to Gillian for her support.
“We know that 2020 was a year like no other and we had to overcome many challenges thrown our way during the global pandemic. But this past year proves, more than any other, the value of investing in science and medical research and what can be achieved by working together. Just like science is our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer. We are absolutely determined to continue to create better cancer treatments for tomorrow.
“All 400 mass participation Race for Life events across the UK were cancelled last year to protect the country’s health during the Covid-19 pandemic. So this year, more than ever, we need people to enter the Race for Life - for the people we love, for the people we’ve lost and for the one in two of us who will get cancer.”
Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
Cancer Research UK was able to spend over £42 million in Scotland last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.