If she had all the time in the world, Annette Meyer figures, her journal wouldn't be anybody's business but her own.
But the 51-year-old Loudoun County art teacher knows she doesn't. She has advanced breast cancer and has been told that even the most promising treatments probably will only prolong -- not save -- her life.
And so she is baring the illustrated diary she has kept for the past five years documenting, in intensely personal detail, an ordinary life with cancer. First, she paged through it with friends and family. Then came a show in Berryville and another at Winchester Medical Center, near her home. Her work also formed the core of the first annual Breast Cancer Art Show at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
The journal has been Meyer's way of coping, so effective that she encourages her teenage students to try it, just as, years ago, she gave her 7-year-old daughter a blank notebook in which a child's fears could be vented. Reproductions from that notebook now hang alongside her mother's in the shows.
Twice, Meyer thought she had beaten the cancer. Each time, the malignant cells returned, roaming her body and looking for places to root. She has a tumor now on her scalp and another on her back. The cancer has seeped into her bones. Day by day, the journal tells of her struggle against it, her terror and loneliness, her humor and her determination to live all the life that's given to her.
April 16, 2003, 2:18 a.m.: A thought bubble floats outside the darkened upstairs window of a narrow, cartoonlike house. I wake up to the sound of my voice saying "advanced breast cancer." Advanced breast cancer. I have advanced breast cancer. I'm awake and all alone.
Even Meyer's oncologist, after walking through her first show, told her he was surprised to see how much she was willing to display for strangers. But she said that the images tell the story of hundreds of thousands of people and that she wants to share them "while I can still put my voice behind them."
"I've got nothing to lose," she said. "I just feel compelled to let people know this."
It has been 13 years since Meyer first felt a lump in her breast. A mammogram had recently come back clean. She was young, only 37, with two small daughters. When the doctor told her it was cancer, she instinctively asked, "Are you sure?"
"He said, 'It's like you're pregnant. Either you are or you're not,' " she said.
She had a mastectomy, then eight months of chemotherapy that made her constantly nauseous. She kept a journal then, too, but its lined paper encouraged her to stick to words rather than the pictures with which she is more comfortable. It was so dark and upsetting that when she went into remission, she put it away. Her daughters can read it someday if they want to, she said. She never will.
At the time, she encouraged her older daughter, Kimberly Thomas, then 7 and now 21, to keep a journal, too. The block-letter entries reflect a child's understanding of death and illness:
Feb. 12, 1992:
If anyone said that my mommy was going to dided. I would have say to that person . . . that my mommy was not going to dide, because my mommy had the best dorcters in the world. My mommy also found the tummer fast engh that had not spread yet. She also got a cemo treatment that helps to fight away the bad cansir sells.
Thomas says now that she remembers the emotions -- the confusion, the fear, the uneasiness from seeing relatives crying -- but not the journal itself.
She has been enrolled at the Art Institute of Colorado but recently moved back to Virginia to be nearby. She comes to the shows to support her mother and chat with visitors. But she won't read the pages hanging on the walls.
She read them once, home alone one evening with her mother. Thomas said it helped to see into the fears from which her mother had tried to shield her -- of not living to see her daughter marry, of the loneliness she felt after her divorce.
"I wasn't realizing how okay she was. It's not that she's ready, but she has thought about it -- to actually think about who's going to get the house," Thomas said.
But once was enough.
"I mean, I want her to see me get married and have kids, too," she said.
The journal goes everywhere. It was her companion when breast cancer invaded her lungs three years ago -- the start of the most recent of her three occurrences of the disease -- and a choking cough kept her up in the middle of the night.
"I'm never without it. If I'm getting ready to go into the operating room, it's the last thing they take from me. They take off my glasses, and then they take my book," she told a group of women at the opening of the Naval Medical Center art show.
It is soothing simply to make contact with the paper, she told them -- just to translate unnamed emotion into something physical that can be touched and felt. She is never without watercolors to add color to its pages. She carves symbols into wine corks and uses them as stamps. She wields pens and crayons. Once, she used a barbecue skewer to drip red paint reminiscent of blood.
Oncology nurse Moira McGuire had never met Meyer, but when she first saw the journals at the show in Berryville, she wept. Right away, she knew she would organize the show at the naval hospital's breast care center.
"I truly, truly believe that no one leaves this show the same," McGuire said.
The book goes to River Bend Middle School, too, where Meyer has taught art for the past three years. Last year, during a unit on paper dolls, she made her own to paste into the book -- Steroid Girl, swollen and heavy from drugs. She tries to explain her treatment to her students, encourages them to start their own art diaries and sometimes even lets them read hers.
One group became so entranced by her story last year that they sat in a corner every day, reading aloud to one another about her divorce and disease.
"It was their own little kaffeeklatsch," Meyer said with a hearty laugh.
One of those students, Laura Collins, 14, said she has begun a journal of her own. When she broke up with a boyfriend, she wrote a letter to herself: "It'll be okay, it'll be okay."
Pattie Snyder, whose daughter Bailey was in the class last year, said Meyer's most important lesson may be just showing up each day. "Without her knowing it, she's really teaching the kids about compassion," Snyder said.
Meyer doesn't tell her students more than they can handle, Principal Bennett Lacy said, and she doesn't look sick, either, so her appearance isn't upsetting to them. But there was a time when he feared that her illness might force her to quit this year. Over the summer, he stopped by her classroom and found it empty.
"I walked in, and the dadgum art room was clean," he said. "I thought she was gone."
But no, she explained to him later, she just needed her supplies for a summer program she was leading. In August, she was back in her classroom, with the same smile and sharp sense of humor, he said.
Meyer said she has never considered giving up her job. She worked through her last recurrence, too, when she was teaching in nearby Clarke County. She would leave after a full day's work for radiation treatment and return to school afterward to lead the yearbook club.
As a divorced mother of two, she said, quitting simply isn't an option, financially or emotionally.
"I can still live my life, and this is what I do with my life," she said. "This is not the time to stop living it."
Meyer fills an inch-thick book a year, and she has already bought a new one for January.
In 2001, she was told that radiation had cleared breast cancer cells from her lungs but that they would find new territory to invade in three or four years. Only one year later, a bone scan showed lesions on her shin, ribs, skull and lower spine. Her doctor has stopped giving timelines now -- he just doesn't know.
Meyer said she has been astounded by medical advances in the 13 years since her diagnosis. They encourage her to keep fighting.
Late last month, she began a relatively new treatment, a vaccine-like drug that targets the protein-rich cells doctors say cause her cancer. After the first week, she said, she felt her tumors shrinking -- and her hopes rising.
While she waits, there is much to do. She hopes her journal will encourage women to check their breasts, and have them checked, early and often. She is still giving talks about the journal and wants to turn her artwork into a book.
"When I'm gone," she said, "I lose everything. This, I'm hoping, will be my legacy."