Art imitates life

Teacher-artist reprioritizes after surviving breast cancer

Art showing: Rita Rickmers’ work has been featured in shows by artists who are survivors of breast cancer. And this summer Rickmers was among only a handful of high school art teachers nationwide chosen to attend, costs covered, a Teacher Institute in Contemporary Art and Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Some of her work is now on display at the Black Crow Grill and Taproom.

Reta Rickmers is a gifted artist, a mother, a high school art teacher and a breast cancer survivor.

“It changes your life,” said the distinguished-looking, classily dressed 48-year-old with short hair and thoughtful poise.

Sitting among her artwork displayed at downtown Chico’s Upper Crust Bakery, Rickmers relived in words an ordeal—and transformation—that started in September 1997, when she first suspected she might have breast cancer.

“Two of my friends got breast cancer, and it made me aware of self-examining, which I had never been very good about.” She had been getting mammograms as often as every six months and thought she had her bases covered.

“You can never tell,” she figured, “what is a normal lump and what isn’t. Breasts are lumpy.

“I was watching TV with my husband and I felt at my breast and there was a lump. It was like a pea. It didn’t hurt, but there wasn’t one on the other side.”

Perhaps surprisingly for a woman who considers herself a “definite realist” and generally self-aware, she went straight to denial: “I didn’t do anything at first and I just kept feeling it and I thought, ‘Maybe it will go away.'”

ART THERAPY <br>Reta Rickmer’s first full art show in eight years featured works drawn from childhood memories and a theme inspired by the petroglyphs in Arizona’s Petrified Forest. The raven came to symbolize even more after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She thought maybe she was being a hypochondriac. “You just think you have it because your friends have it,” she told herself.

“Plus, I never visualized myself as the type of person who would get cancer,” she added, realizing how weird that sounds. “I haven’t eaten beef since 1976, I exercise, I eat healthfully. … I thought I was doing everything right.” Later, she learned that three of her cousins got the disease, which has been linked to heredity.

She didn’t want to believe the lump was anything. And she grasped at anything that helped her continue to deny it: her husband saying everything was OK; a visit two months later to a physician’s assistant who said, essentially, that it was probably nothing to worry about but to get a sonogram if she wanted.

“I took that sonogram slip and threw it in my glove box until January,” she said. By then, the lump “had grown from a pea to a grape.”

She went in for the sonogram. “When I saw the image [on the screen], it was like a black hole. I knew it didn’t look good.”

A painful biopsy confirmed that Rickmers had cancer. The doctor called, and “he said, ‘Yes, you have breast cancer and it’s a very'—I remember the word he used—he said ‘a very aggressive’ tumor. Later, they called it ‘angry.’ They would give it a personality, like, ‘It’s an angry tumor.'”

Because the doctors told her a lumpectomy would be just as effective as a mastectomy, she opted for the lumpectomy. “I didn’t want to have my breasts cut off. I didn’t want to be mutilated if I didn’t have to be. I like my breasts. They’re part of my body, a part of who I am.” Of course, she said, she’d have had the mastectomy if it had come down to that.

But an even more difficult decision came soon after: “The hard choice for me was deciding whether to do chemotherapy or not.”

BACK IN CLASS <br>Reta Rickmers took part of semester off from her teaching position at Pleasant Valley High School while she was being treated for breast cancer. Now, she’s back inspiring creativity among students like senior Will McPherson, pictured.

photo by Tom Angel

She had always thought—to whatever degree healthy people think about such things—that if she ever got cancer she would refuse chemotherapy. “I [figured I] would just diet or fast or do something different, and then I was faced with the choice and it was really hard to do.”

When she was told that having the chemo would increase her chances for survival from 80 percent to 90 percent, “I tried to make that human for me, so I visualized 10 people standing there. If I didn’t do it, I might be two of those 10 people standing there, and if I did it I’d be the one person.” Her sons are now 16 and 19. “When I was faced with living or dying, I figured I had to do everything I could to live.”

Another clincher was when she learned that not all cancers come in a form that’s responsive to chemotherapy: She could turn down chemo and conceivably have the cancer come back in a form that couldn’t be treated that way. “I would feel so stupid. I would always be saying, ‘What if, what if I had done it? It’s a whole different cancer when it comes back.”

There were two “worst” parts of having breast cancer for Rickmers. The first was being the first local subject of a technique in which dye is inserted, with needles, all around the breast in an attempt to determine whether the lymph nodes had been affected to the degree that some needed to be removed. “It hurt so bad that I was literally pulling my hair out. It was excruciating.”

The other was, of course, the chemo. “The chemotherapy, it was bad. It wasn’t as bad as what I thought, though.” She went four times, once every three weeks. They put an IV in her arm. “You sit there for two hours while this poison goes into your body.”

Also, her immune system was so compromised that she got infections in both ears, and “in 24 hours both of my eardrums burst like firecrackers going off. … I was basically deaf for a month.”

Meanwhile, her hair was falling out by the handfuls. “You wouldn’t believe how much hair you’ve got,” said Rickmers, who had gotten hers cut short in anticipation of the hair loss. Even so, there are “handfuls of hair on your pillow. You take a shower, and there’s all this hair on the floor.”

“I was deaf, I was bald and I was vomiting for 12 hours straight, and that was like the low point of the whole thing.”

MEMORIES OF HOME <br>Chicks and snakes join ravens as a familiar motif in Reta Rickmers’ work, as they remind her of her childhood home in rural Texas. This is a self-portrait.

Her family, friends and coworkers at Pleasant Valley High School rallied around her. “The other teachers at PV donated sick leave so I could take the rest of the semester off,” said Rickmers, who was off from February through June and then the summer.

“My women friends have been so awesome. Every week they would send home a card or a book. They sent home food,” she said. “If you don’t know what to say, sometimes people say nothing.”

“When I found out [I hadcancer], I wrote a letter to all of my women friends and I told them all my story.” She wrote that it’s important to do both breast self-exams and mammograms, and that the best chance for treatment lies in early detection. Her cancer was diagnosed when it was at Stage Two. “If I had dealt with it, it would have been what’s called a Stage One cancer.”

It was especially hard for her to tell her family about the disease. “My mother just acted like I had told her the weather’s fine or something,” said Rickmers, who realized her mom was stunned by the news and asked her sister to tell the rest of the family.

"[It was] kind of awkward when I would run into people who I hadn’t seen in a while. … I did try to smooth it over for most people.

“Overall, I think that I was able to deal with it pretty well. It upset me, but it didn’t completely devastate me.” One of the biggest challenges was the way having cancer shook her out of her everyday routine.

Also, she said thoughtfully, “I didn’t know at what point I ought to say, ‘I have it’ or ‘I had it.'”

It’s said that if a breast cancer survivor makes it to five years without a recurrence of the disease, her chances are very good. Rickmers’ five years will be up in October 2002. She’s been taking Tamoxifin, an anti-breast-cancer drug for people whose tumors were estrogen-positive. Because hers was, it “put me through menopause at an early age,” and she is now at a higher risk for osteoporosis.

“Raven Flock,” a work in chalk.

Recently, Rickmers was at the gym—she’s been exercising more to stay healthy—and she noticed a little girl, about 6, staring at her. “She asked, ‘What is that line on your breast?'” Rickmers told her it was a scar, from when she had breast cancer. “They took it out?” asked the girl. “So that means you’re not gonna die, right?”

Rickmers told her she hoped not.

“That’s one of the things that haunts you: Is it going to come back?

“It made me realize, I don’t know how long I’m going to live.” She was very upset when Linda McCartney, photographer and wife of singer Paul McCartney, died in 1998 of breast cancer. “If she can die of breast cancer, everyone can die of breast cancer.”

Having breast cancer “made me prioritize what I do.”

“I realized that I was putting work too high on my priority list,” said Rickmers, who had tallied family, friends, job, art and then health as her top priorities. “You can’t do any of those things if you don’t put health No. 1,” she said.

“I really try to do things that make me happy—that’s so important. I always felt like I valued life, but I value life more now, especially little things.”

Interestingly, it was her time off work—she felt sick only while she was getting treatments—that allowed Rickmers to re-focus on her art.

Before she was diagnosed, she had visited the Petrified Forest in Arizona. When she saw the petroglyph art on Newspaper Rock, she had an epiphany. The images of ravens in particular spoke to her, and Rickmers knew she wanted to one day do a series on the theme. She began researching the mythology of the bird. After she was diagnosed, she wrote in an artist’s statement, “The raven came to symbolize many different things to me. He became a messenger of death but also a personal totem.”

One painting in particular, which was among those displayed at the recent show at the Upper Crust—her first solo show in eight years—shows a raven perched, staring at the viewer. Rickmers said she was looking at the painting one day and decided to add something: a self-portrait alongside the bird.

She also began revisiting childhood memories in her art. She grew up in the outskirts of Arlington, Texas, and remembers raising animals (hence a painting of a baby chick) and battling copperhead snakes—another realistic piece.

“I needed art to help me survive. It was helping me deal with that whole thing. You know you’re going to die. What you don’t think about it much. I had never really dealt with it on a deep level. It really helped me process that whole experience."