Right after Thanksgiving 2009, artist and activist Lydiaemily Archibald, 44, was diagnosed with cancer in her cervix and uterus. While her diagnosis ultimately led to the demise of a three-year relationship, it also boosted her love life in a surprising way.
I’m what’s known as a DES daughter. Doctors used to give diethylstilbestrol, or DES, to women to prevent miscarriage. A doctor gave my mom some when she was traveling through Guadalajara, Mexico. My hippie parents were traveling to hippie places, and DES wasn’t illegal there like it was in the United States. When she came back to the U.S., her doctor said to stop taking it immediately. She didn’t take it for the full length of her pregnancy, and obviously I ended up surviving. But the DES she took was still enough to affect me. One result was my bicornuate uterus, which basically means my uterus is divided into two horn-shaped sections instead of one chamber. That made it very hard to have successful pregnancies with my ex-husband; I had a total of seven miscarriages while trying to have my two daughters, Dorothy, 14, and Coco, 12. And because of my DES exposure, I was also diagnosed with clear-cell adenocarcinoma when I was 38 years old.
Since I knew I was a DES daughter, I would get pap smears every six months like my doctors recommended. Two months before I got diagnosed, my pap smear came up clean. Then, I was going to donate a kidney to a friend and had a bunch of tests run for that—and they found the cancer just after Thanksgiving 2009. Within two months, it had already spread. I didn’t even have any symptoms. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my friends who said, “You can’t donate a kidney, think about your kids!” If I hadn’t been for my trying to donate, I’d probably be dead right now.
The cancer cells on my cervix were caught early enough that I got surgery but didn’t have to do chemotherapy or radiation. Doctors did the surgery within weeks of my diagnosis because it’s a killer, this cancer. When they went in to take out my cervix, they saw the cancer had spread to my uterus, so they made the decision to give me a full hysterectomy.
I’d been dating my then-boyfriend for three years when I was diagnosed. The day I told him about my diagnosis, he was worried for me, upset for us, and didn’t know what was going to happen. He was scared of all the potential changes my body might go through—like weight gain and hair loss, and as a result, he was not very supportive. One day we were talking about my surgery and recuperation, and he was like, “Can you just not get fat, please?” He then went into a different room, closed the door, and I assume he watched porn all night (he loved pornography). I slept on couch, lying there, knowing my female parts were diseased and going to kill me if the doctors didn’t do something about it. Meanwhile, he was in another room watching beautiful women and looking for those very parts that were making me sick.
Then, the day I got home from the hospital, he disappeared for five minutes. I knew he was watching porn again. When he came back, I said, “You owe me five million dollars.” He asked why, and I said, “Well, if you think about all my body parts and education and braces, the things I’ve done, the money I spend dying my hair and doing my makeup, my body is worth about a million a minute. You just wasted five of mine. If you don’t have five million dollars, you need you get your shit and get the fuck out.” And that was it.
He always thought of himself as John Lennon, so let’s call him what he really is: Ringo. He didn’t take my diagnosis well at all. When I look back on that time now, I think of myself, my kids, the rest of my family, and how awesome they were. Even though Ringo was around and in the hospital, it’s remarkable how my brain can edit him out.
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I wasn’t able to have sex for a few months after my surgery because I got an infection, and really, I wanted to focus on my kids and myself. I wasn’t going to enjoy sex with this baggage of having cancer and feeling like a victim. After a few months, I started to exercise, dyed my hair brown after being a natural blonde all my life, got different clothes, and rearranged my house. Then, on August 11, 2014, I met a fabulous man, Andy, on a blind date a mutual friend set up. I like guys with bellies and beards, and he had both. He was parking outside the restaurant when we first saw each other. We looked at each other from across the street, waved, and a short eight months later, we were married.
Andy doesn’t care whether I have a cervix or not, and our sex life is wonderful. When I had deep penetrating sex before my surgery, sometimes it felt like the penis was denting my cervix. But now that feeling is gone. The doctors pretty much made a sock puppet out of my vagina and sewed the end off, so there’s not that cervical barrier anymore. I can have crazy wild monkey sex now, and nothing hurts. It’s amazing. Also, my libido didn’t suffer even though my uterus is gone. Certainly, right after surgery, I wasn’t feeling sexy. But long-term, it hasn’t changed. I think your libido is affected by your behavior and that of the people around you, so a lot of it is about finding someone who invokes those sexy feelings in you and makes you feel beautiful. My husband is so supportive of me, loves my kids like they’re his own, and lives and breathes for us. I wish I could rent him out to other women so they can see how awesome men can be.
In that sense, cancer was best thing that could have happened to me. Otherwise, I could have stayed in a relationship with this man who was emotionally unkind. It helped make me who I am and gave my kids a blueprint of how to behave: When you’re treated this way, you choose the lonely road, and you make it awesome. Don’t get me wrong; I had low moments. There was a lot of crying—I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger. But instead of feeling like a victim and thinking I’d lost my boyfriend to cancer, I rewrote what was happening to me. I thought, “You know what? I am getting rid of that boyfriend while I have cancer because I’d rather do this on my own than have to care for someone else.” Our relationship didn’t survive it, but I did.
Born into an activist family passionate about civil rights, social justice, and equality, Lydiaemily’s work is infused with a grace parallel to the injustice behind the imagery. She is a cancer survivor and a daily warrior against multiple sclerosis (M.S.). These issues serve as catalysts for not only her art, but also for her social engagement as a speaker. In 2015, she created four large murals spreading a message of hope to those whose lives are touched by M.S. These inspirational murals are located in Los Angeles; Houston; Portland, Oregon; and Louisville, Kentucky. She plans to continue painting the hopeful murals for M.S. chapters around the globe.
Lydiaemily is the subject of the documentary PC594, which is currently in production and is being directed by Libby Spears. The documentary is an in-depth look at her work as an artist and activist and how they come together in her stunning paintings. You can help fund the film by clicking “Support” on its Facebook page.
Source: Women’s Health Mag