Mina Paasche and the Art of Being a Cancer Survivor

At 26, the Norwegian artist was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She filmed her entire experience dealing with it, so we spoke with her about cancer and art ahead of her new exhibition in Denmark.
Mina Paasche, ‘Self-Portrait’ 

In a way, it’s everyone’s worst fear. One day, you’re a healthy person in your mid-20s living your life like usual—and the next, you unexpectedly get diagnosed with cancer. That’s what happened to Denmark-based, Norwegian artist Mina Paasche when she went for a free cancer screening to check out some discomfort she’d been feeling, and came out diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Understandably, Paasche was in shock—which partially has to do with how we deal, or rather don’t deal, with cancer as a culture. The looming, seemingly uncontrollable illness unexpectedly strikes a whopping 40 percent of us at some point in our lives—and we don’t know how to stop it. As a result, it’s taboo to talk about, which is detrimental for the young people affected by it: although only 4 percent of cancer patients are young people , that’s still a lot of people like you or me. That’s part of what Paasche is trying to communicate in her new exhibition, Death is Not an Option. It opens Friday November 3rd at kl. 18 at her studio, located at Århusgade 80 in Copenhagen.

Paasche will be exhibiting videos she made during her experience dealing with cancer, treating it and eventually overcoming it (she’s been cancer-free for 2.5 years.) The videos take you inside her head: filmed primarily on a go-pro, they document the towering hospital equipment, isolation and physical changes she experienced from an intimate and relatable point of view. The effect is magnified by a dystopian ambient soundtrack, which serves to heighten the disorienting emotions you get from the video and ultimately communicate the disorienting emotions she felt as well. In addition to the videos, there’s a stark installation composed of a simple chair and hair. Together, the videos and installation create a poignantly raw portrait of dealing with cancer as a young person—one that you don’t often get to see or hear about.

Ahead of the exhibition launch, we decided to talk to Mina about the ups and downs of dealing with cancer, using art as therapy and our collective need to open up the dialogue around cancer and young people.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hi, Mina. Tell us about the concept behind your upcoming exhibition.

Mina Paasche: I’m exhibiting the artwork I made while I was sick with cancer. I’m also displaying  the artwork I made after when I struggled with the side effects of the treatment and with the Danish medical system, where there can be little understanding and space for sick young people.

The first works are about my emotions, femininity and experiences during and post treatment. I’m kind of letting people inside my head and trying to answer the question of what it was like to be young and have cancer.

How did you find out you have cancer and how old were you?

I was 26 years old and in the middle of my master’s thesis when I got a letter from the Danish health care system that I could get a free cancer screening. I was thinking about postponing it, since I’d had the screening when I was 23, anyway. But then I admitted that I had been feeling a little strange down there in the summer, so I thought I’d ask about that just in case. It turned out that the strange little something was quite serious. After several different examinations, they told me that I had a big tumour in my cervix and that it was too big to operate on.

I was in shock, since I was feeling quite healthy—doing yoga, eating good things, all that stuff. My plan to spend the least amount of time possible with my family in Norway for Christmas turned around into me wanting to do anything to come home and get a hug from my mum. I started going every day for beaming sessions, once a week for chemotherapy, once a week for blood controls and health checkup. That’s in addition to lots of scans and examinations before, during and after.

What emotions did you go through?

I was in this passive kind of survival mode. Sad, angry sometimes, happy for my loved ones supporting me. But most of the time I felt a bit blank trying to comfort all the people around me and pretending that everything was going to be fine. When you have cancer, you get very focused on small steps: you take things one day at the time, and I tried to do all kinds of strange things to cure the cancer based on advice. I was supposed to alter my entire lifestyle: reconsider my relationship to religion, only eat vegetables and drink juice, sleep more often, eat green algae, exercise a lot, take hundreds of vitamins, have cannabis oil, quit meat, quit coffee, quit alcohol, quit sugar. All this good advice was awful and made me feel even more powerless.

In contrast to feeling powerless, your upcoming exhibition is called Death is Not an Option, which is quite a resilient title.

Yes, the title describes everything perfectly. It talks about the cancer fighting machine you turn into where you will do so many awful things to your body just to stay alive. No mercy.

When did those feelings of powerlessness transform into you feeling like a ‘cancer fighting machine’?

Cancer equals death. It took a bit too long before one of the doctors promised me that I was not going to die, and that they could cure this kind of cancer at the stage I was in with the treatment they wanted to give me. I remember this moment quite clearly since I was sure I was going to die. But after that, I decided to be brave and do whatever was needed to make everything okay again. I tried to be strong, but at the same time I was feeling incredibly lonely, even when I had people around me.

I am recovered now, and I just had my 2.5 year check up 2 weeks ago which didn’t show any signs of cancer. So that makes me really happy. The more time that passes the smaller the chance is of the cancer coming back, and after 5 years, I won’t have to go to these checkups anymore. I’m looking forward to that, even though it’s nice to meet up with the doctor and nurses who saved my life once in a while and celebrate life after every check up.

How did making art influence your experience with cancer?

I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember and I typically like to paint really big. But I didn’t have the strength to make more then two paintings during the treatment period. I had a lot of time, though, and my friend suggested that we could film my experience.

People kept asking me what it was like to have cancer and get all those treatments, but words weren’t enough to describe the overwhelming, out-of-body experience you have dealing with people in lab coats, chemicals and big, scary machines. And since my family was in Norway, my first intention with recording my new daily routine was to show them what it was like. In the absence of words, I made my first videos ever.

It was really nice to have a project to work on during all that slow time, with lots of waiting. And in some ways, it did me a lot of good to talk to my friend while she was filming me (the medical personnel must have thought I was crazy taking my go pro to film inside the beaming machine.) 

I couldn’t look at any of the footage until almost a year had passed. And in that way, it has been kind of therapeutic for me to make these videos: to take all the bad things and collect them in this physical thing outside my body. But I still don’t like to watch them.

What impact do you want to make on viewers with your videos?

The goal with the videos is to make the viewer feel what I felt at that time, and to get as close to my experiences as possible. And another goal is, of course, to advocate for young cancer patients: to raise awareness and acceptance.

What’s the relationship between the installation – the chair and the hair – and the videos?

I didn’t lose my hair during chemotherapy and people often told me how lucky I was or that I didn’t look sick. Since my appearance differed from the stereotypical cancer patient’s, I had some bad experiences. I felt some people didn’t take my problems seriously.

At some point, some of the other youngsters in our cancer club, kræftværket, joked about shaving my head since I had this long hair and they didn’t.

Long story short: They shaved my head and I’m exhibiting a video of the performance, together with a poem written by a guy who had leukaemia. It’s accompanied by an installation, where I exhibit the chair and my hair.

Some of the videos in your show aren’t about you: they focus on a girl you met being treated for breast cancer. What parts of her experience did you want to capture on film?

The newest works in the series are more about young people affected by cancer, with a focus on performance and videos I made a year ago with other young cancer patients. Within that, there’s an artistic video portrait of a girl I met at the hospital that shows her scars from breast cancer surgery. She wanted to contribute to my series to help expand people’s perceptions of the body and also to say something about life after treatment. We tried different kinds of setups testing how to portray her scars and ended up with this scanner sequence that doesn’t show her face.

The point is to emphasise that this person could be anyone, even you.

 These videos are also about external pressure: how the people around you have certain expectations that everything should go back to normal since you don’t have cancer anymore. But the truth is that there is a whole new normal after cancer. And that is the statement of this video.

How did having cancer impact your relationship to your own femininity?

I had body changes, scars, hair, no hair, treatment side effects and fear of other side effects like loss of fertility, menopause and sexuality.

 I made the videos to say something about it, but I’m still not ready to speak too openly about my personal body changes with strangers. So for the moment, I won’t spoil the wondering and reflection the art pieces are supposed to stimulate. I hope that’s ok.

Mina getting her head shaved.

To what extent do you feel it’s taboo for us to talk about young people having cancer? What can we do to change that?

I think people don’t like to talk about unpleasant things; some people freak out if they even hear the word cancer. Some of my friends and family still can get kind of white in the face and try to change the subject if it comes up, so it’s definitely taboo.

The only way to change that is for young people to tell their stories and do things to raise awareness. And there’s not enough focus at all on life post cancer and the long term after effects; we also don’t talk about how the job centre system isn’t built for young people with longterm illnesses. No one likes to be reminded of their own immortality, but maybe people would be nicer and happier about the small things in life if they could stay in the shadows with a cancer patient for a moment.

Even for me, it’s difficult talking about sickness and death; I would rather exhibit my art instead. And I’m quite nervous to exhibit everything all at once.

 The soundtrack for the films is very deep, emotional, layered. Tell us a little bit about the idea behind it.

My boyfriend made the music, and he composed it for the videos. So in some ways, his pain is also documented in the videos. He is a very talented Danish musician: when I tell him about the universe of the art pieces, he creates exactly what I was hoping for without me having to give him too many instructions. The music is made to enlarge the feelings in the videos and I’m really satisfied about this collaboration of ours.

What do you hope will come out of this exhibition?

I’m not sure, but the people who took part in the art pieces and displayed their pain to me deserve a proper celebration of their bravery. And I would like to show everything together to defy the fear you have about what people will think or say, or if it’s too dark and too much about sickness and death. Our feelings deserve some attention, and we can’t be happy all the time, even if we’re survivors. And I personally need to do this exhibition before I can show my other projects. It’s like closure before a new year with lots of good health.

Thank you, Mina.