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The Creative Process That Made Cancer (Slightly) Less Terrible

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. It can be a great characteristic that sets you apart in your work, especially in a field like mine—I’m a makeup artist by trade. My sharp eye for detail and drive to create pristinely symmetrical looks is one of the reasons I’ve been successful in my business. But when a basal cell carcinoma had to be removed from my forehead a few years ago, I had to reimagine my relationship with this trait completely.

The surgery was lengthy, and my doctors had to go in three times to remove all of the cancer cells, a process that left a hole in my forehead the size of a nickel. Afterwards, I experienced a lot of bruising and swelling that traveled all the way to my jawline. My left eyebrow was pushed down by the swelling, so I looked like I had a permanently sad expression on my face.

For a while there, my face looked like one of those Greek theater masks—the muse of Tragedy, not Comedy.

It was frankly unsettling to see myself like that, so while all of this was going on, I knew I needed something to distract myself. I created a new blog, which I called I Dream Of Italy, and started writing articles and editing photographs for it. The blog featured short essays and photographs documenting previous trips to Venice and Rome, recounting anecdotes of the people I met and quirky interactions I had. I’ve always loved photography, and I discovered I really enjoyed sharing my photographs online, even if my audience was quite small. Instead of striving for perfection, my goal for my blog was humble: I wasn’t trying to become a famous travel writer or get a series on the Travel Channel, I just wanted to develop a creative outlet where I could make something positive in a time when looking in the mirror felt hard.

I discovered that a life-altering experience like cancer—even when it isn’t life-threatening—is a time to look inward and discover what you really want to do with your time. So often, those true desires are drowned out by the loud demands of daily life. So in some ways, it’s the perfect time to reinvent yourself, or at least try something you’ve always wanted to try.

Cancer makes you listen to yourself.

I’m so glad that I developed my blog during my recovery. As soon as I started working on it, I knew I had discovered a form of respite: whenever I’m immersed in writing and photo editing, the creative impulse takes over, and I’m pulled entirely into my work. I stop worrying about being perfect, and I even forget what I look like.

After the bruising and swelling healed, I was left with a scar and some small indentations where the stitches had been. The surgery permanently altered my left eyebrow, raising the edge that is closest to the bridge of the nose; the result was exactly the opposite of what you’d ask for if you had a brow lift. I learned to fill in my brows in a way to create more symmetry, but not before going back to the plastic surgeon to ask what could be done about my uneven brows. His proposed solution was to make the scar even wider and raise the brow over the right eye, too. That did not seem like an actual solution to me, and I declined.

The scar that I have still runs from brow to brow, but I Dream of Italy became something much bigger and more important than I’d ever imagined. I changed the name to Adventures of a Carry-On; I wanted to explore more and travel further afield than Italy, so I reinvented my blog as a place where I could do that. Now I travel to and write about new destinations all the time, and I’m gaining new readership. Following a creative pursuit was so important to help my healing, but it also led me in a new life direction, one I’m endlessly grateful for.

Penny Sadler is a Texas-based makeup artist, travel, wine writer, and photographer. Find her on Instagram at @adventuresofacarryon and check out her stories on adventuresofacarryon.com 

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