Vivienne refuses to let a brain tumour removal stop her creativity


In July, the popular White River Gallery exhibited Vivienne Lawrence's art - mixed medium paintings and screen prints. The exhibition comes only three years after Vivienne had a cancerous brain tumour removed. The tumour caused loss of function of her dominant right arm and hand.

"The doctor called me into her rooms to meet with her and over the course of the consultation, she held up an image of my brain. And there it was - a horrible thing, the size of my thumb."

When 61-year-old artist Vivienne Lawrence was first diagnosed with what doctors thought was a slow-growing, benign tumour, she was hesitant to have it removed. That's because she was told the surgery could leave her blind and paralysed.

Vivienne's cousin, Heather Swanepoel, who has supported her throughout her treatment and recovery, adds: "Her first symptoms were feeling very ill after using the sauna at the gym and her speech began to slur."

Later, Vivienne started experiencing further concerning symptoms

"I struggled to talk," explains Vivienne, a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member. "And one day I was driving somewhere and couldn't remember where I was going. I phoned my friend Bonny and, luckily, she was able to find me. Now I don't even remember making that phone call."

After the onset of more severe symptoms, which included seizures, Bonny Biddulph and her doctor husband, Brian, insisted Vivienne see a neurosurgeon. That was when it became apparent that the tumour was in fact a left parietal glioblastoma multiforme - an aggressive form of cancer.

Heather says that Vivienne's tumour came as a real shock because she'd always been very health conscious: "She was an athlete at school. Vivienne did ballroom dancing, went to gym and was always very active. She ate healthy food and didn't drink or smoke. She was always very careful not to put anything toxic into her body."

Vivienne's tumour is removed

In March 2019, Vivienne's tumour was removed at Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. "I didn't really know what to expect," she says. "I thought I was going to walk in there with my high heel shoes on and walk out again the next day."

Heather adds: "The tumour was distorting the midline of Vivienne's brain and was making her symptoms worse. It was putting so much pressure on her brain that she had to have the operation, otherwise she would've died. The tumour turned out to be really big - almost 5cm in diameter!"

Months of rehabilitation, chemotherapy and radiation

After nearly a month in hospital, Vivienne was moved to the Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital. The tumour and operation had left Vivienne's right arm paralysed and her right leg was partially paralysed too.

"Despite these setbacks, we were so relieved that Vivienne could talk, swallow and see. She also had some movement in her right foot. The outcome could've been much worse," says Heather. Since the operation, Vivienne struggles to verbalise what she wants to say. Her memory has also been affected, which is why Heather, who is based in Cape Town, helps out when Vivienne can't express herself.

In rehab, Vivienne received speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. She worked hard to walk again and regain some use of her right arm, and she learned how to use her left hand for day-to-day activities. While in rehab, she continued to receive chemotherapy and radiation.

After three months in rehab, Vivienne could finally move back to the Lowveld where she lives with her two dogs.

She continued with rehabilitation and chemotherapy in Nelspruit as an outpatient. "I do everything for myself and I prefer it that way. We were made to work and that's what keeps me going."

Vivienne's art and life in the bush

Vivienne's great grandfather was one of the founders of White River in Mpumalanga and she has lived in the Lowveld Bushveld area for most of her life. Both her parents were artists and Vivienne became a prolific artist too.

Soon after school, she went to Italy to study ceramics. Back in South Africa, Vivienne worked as a ceramic artist and her first ceramics exhibition was sold out. Vivienne also became a talented wildlife and bush photographer.

"My then husband was involved in game capture and I would join him to take photos from the helicopter." After their divorce, she returned to her art and produced screen prints and paintings on fabric.

She also worked as a national tour guide and sourced and supplied African artefacts to five-star game lodges in Mpumalanga.

Determined Vivienne starts painting again, with her left hand!

It was during a phone call with Heather in mid-2021 that Vivienne was inspired to take up her art again. "I hadn't been doing anything because of the way my right arm was affected. Heather said: 'It's a pity you can't paint'. Straight after the call, I got a piece of fabric and I painted - with my left hand," says Vivienne.

After that, there was no holding Vivienne back. "It was a huge piece of fabric. I started big, even though everyone said I must go smaller. But it's a bit difficult to paint smaller designs with my left hand."

It was not long after that that Vivienne approached the gallery to see if they would hold an exhibition. She describes herself as determined and says she saw no point in sitting around doing nothing for any longer. "I wasn't depressed or upset. I just thought, I've got one raggedy right arm and I still jam up when I talk, but what work can I do to make a living?"

Heather adds: "Vivienne is very pragmatic. She never complains, she just gets on with life."

"The exhibition was amazing. It took me nine months to get everything together. And it was so wonderful to display my parents' work with mine."

By July 2022, Vivienne had painted five big fabrics for the gallery. The exhibition also included art by her late parents - her father's sculptures and her mother's wood carvings.

"The exhibition was amazing. It took me nine months to get everything together. And it was so wonderful to display my parents' work with mine."

"Brian showed my doctor a photo of what I'd done and she couldn't believe it. They'd given me nine months to live and there I was, painting!"

Heather adds: "Vivienne is very pragmatic. She never complains, she just gets on with life."

Vivienne has advice for others

"Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) supported me in every way. It's just incredible," says Vivienne. Heather adds: "We credit DHMS for the treatment Vivienne got. They paid for her hospital stay, covered her radiation, chemotherapy and rigorous rehab, and have approved ongoing outpatient rehab - all as part of her oncology benefits."

Vivienne has regained a little bit of movement in her right arm and is continuing with exercises aimed at improving the fine motor skills in her left hand.

She encourages people to go for regular health check-ups. "If they pick up a problem, have it seen to as soon as possible. Don't delay. The sooner you deal with it, the better."

Photography credit: Casandra Jacobs

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