Artist Sarah talks about how she created Day Zero, an audio art piece, to reflect on her experience of receiving a stem cell transplant as part of her treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma.

Image of Sarah in her art studio

‘Looking back, I think I was ill with Hodgkin lymphoma for about six months before I went to the GP. I had been gradually losing weight, and I’d had a couple of infections needing antibiotics. I put those down to stress, but then I felt a hard lump on my neck just above my collar bone. This definitely set the alarm bells ringing, but the final straw came when I started to feel pain in my chest whenever I took a deep breath. Things moved pretty quickly after my first visit to the GP, and I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2017 at the age of 26.

At the time I coped by trying to keep my life as normal as possible. I was studying sculpture at the time, so I attended college as often as I could. However, with time this did become a challenge. The chemotherapy treatment I had been receiving initially didn’t work, which was a huge blow as I had found the treatment very hard to tolerate both physically and emotionally. I felt like something had flipped a switch in my head – telling me to give myself time and accept the changes in my life. It is at this point that my art making changed, and I turned to writing having previously been very hands on through my interest in sculpture.  But doing so helped me find new tools to help me cope, and discover new ways to process what I was going through. I felt a complete freedom in writing, and documenting my experiences was very empowering. Writing felt immediate and completely private, and I found being creative in a different way incredibly cathartic.

In February 2018, I received a stem cell transplant and it was during this time that I started to record my thoughts using a Dictaphone. Those whispered recordings and sounds of the hospital room made me want to translate my experience into an audio piece, and that is where the idea for Day Zero came from. It is an autobiographical piece of art which combines these recordings with three years of writing whilst I was ill and during recovery. For me, it was a way of processing trauma and bringing closure to that part of my life. It is something that I feel positive about and proud of. The piece is honest by sounding incredibly surreal and reflecting a disconnected narrative, as being ill is not a linear experience and feels surreal in itself. Stem cell transplants are also not widely understood, and whilst they are incredibly grueling, they are also quite magical. The thought of being saved by my own stem cells is wonderful, and I sought to convey the pain I endured but also the awe I had for the process.

My stem cell transplant was successful, and I have been in remission for nearly four years. I feel well within myself and positive about my future, although I do still have some lingering issues from the transplant, such as early menopause and a few pain issues.

I am still making art about my recovery, and think I always will. It was certainly something that helped to give me a focus and make meaning out of something so surreal and life changing. My cancer experience does not define me, but it has had a huge impact on my life and I want to pay homage to that. I also want to convey that recovery can take a lifetime, and that it is OK to be changed by an experience.’