Judy Elsley's journal entries, in the fall of 2011, talked about everything from enjoying potato and leek soup with friends to calling a plumber to fix a drip.
On Nov. 15, she wondered "When is it better not to tell the truth?" " 'The Closer's' back," she wrote on Nov. 28, and on Dec. 2 she recognized that it was National Electricity Appreciation Day. When December rolled around, she pondered how to get higher quality work out of students.
On Dec. 22, she wrote "A lump in my breast. What does it mean?"
It meant cancer. Again.
Elsley was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma in 1976, when she was just 23 years old.
"This breast cancer is probably the result of the rather severe radiation I had at the time," she says now. "It saved my life, but there was a price for it -- it affected my lungs, and my heart, and a number of things. I live, physically, with the consequences of that treatment."
And now breast cancer.
Her husband, Alan Livingston, said he was amazed by the courage and grace with which Elsley faced the diagnosis and treatment. She credits her positive outlook to her first battle with cancer.
"It completely changed my attitude toward life," she said. "It was a terrible year to go through, but it was the best experience of my life -- I wouldn't have missed it for anything, because it taught me the value of life, and it taught me what really matters in life. A lot of things I thought were important before clearly were not very important when there was a possibility of being dead. That really set me up, in many ways."
Elsley, of Ogden, was officially diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in January 2012, shortly after the start of her sabbatical from Weber State University. An English professor also known for her quilts, she had planned to use the time off to attend workshops on integrating visual and literary arts. To further explore the idea, one of her goals was to combine text and textile art by writing journal entries on hand-dyed quilt blocks.
Most of her plans were dropped -- replaced by a mastectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy.
In spite of the challenges, she decided to continue with her fabric journal project. The finished quilts are on display in WSU's Kimball Visual Arts Center, on the Ogden campus at 3848 Harrison Blvd. "40 Days and 40 Nights: Breast Cancer Quilts by Judy Elsley" can be seen 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, through Oct. 18. Admission is free.
Elsley turned the journal entries into nine quilts, deliberately stitching 40 blocks into each, she said, because the biblical phrase "40 days and 40 nights" refers to a time of testing.
Daily dose of quilting
As before her diagnosis, Elsley wrote daily on 8-by-8-inch pieces of fabric. Sometimes the journal was about fun things, such as movies she watched, visits with friends, and making a wedding quilt decorated with seashells. But now there were also entries about an infuriating visit with a doctor who seemed uninterested, and about chemotherapy.
"I expected the chemo room to be depressing, but it isn't," she wrote on April 26, 2012. "We're a remarkably cheerful group, known by name to the nurses. We recognize each other, say hello, and settle into our chairs, for all the world as if we were relaxing at home. There's not much conversation, or perhaps that's just me. The chemo room is like a plane: I'm locked into a small space with strangers for 4 hours, and I don't want to listen. I'm plugged into my iPod, reading People (magazine)."
On March 30 of that year, she talked about having her hair shorn off.
"I'm a little surprised when I look in the mirror, but I like it. Androgynous. I wouldn't have had the courage to cut it this short in cold blood, so I'm sort of glad to have this opportunity," she wrote. "I didn't want to wait until my hair fell out in clumps. I didn't want to back into this. I wanted to walk into hair loss proactively and with grace. I suppose, too, it's a way to act as if I have control."
Other days were less upbeat.
Elsley usually wears earrings, but wrote, "All through this illness, I have worn no jewelry. I have been stripped down to the basics, and jewelry feels like an unnecessary and inappropriate adornment."
In big letters, she penned, "Resistance is futile."
After a round of chemotherapy, she wrote "Descent into hell," and listed the aftereffects -- body aches, diarrhea, night sweats and lack of energy.
"Some people's response to the quilts is that they're surprised I'm as honest as I am," Elsley said. Even after deciding to show the finished product in public, she didn't pull any punches. "What was the point of not telling the truth?"
The truth, on March 20, 2012, was: "I feel like I'm dying. I wish I could die."
But within a week she wrote, "The relief of feeling normal again."
The nine quilts on display at WSU are just part of the body of work inspired by Elsley's experience.
The journals are what she calls "micro quilts," detailing her day-to-day life. A series of "macro quilts," not on exhibit at the university, explore big topics such as fear and healing.
She showed all 23 quilts at the Home Machine Quilting Show in Sandy in May of this year, where she was a sponsored guest speaker.
One of her quilts, titled "Chemo," took first place in the 2012 "Oncology on Canvas" art competition; the prize was $12,000 to donate to a cancer-related charity, and she chose Casting for Recovery, a program she participated in that takes cancer patients fishing.
"It's astonishing that she produced all those quilts during that time," said her husband. "I think it's something that really helped her survive the experience, or at least get through the experience."
Elsley says it's not a "downer" to read the cancer journal entries, and that she'd like to turn them into a book.
"Basically, I'm pretty positive about the experience," she said. "That's how I saw it, and how I see it now."
Her first bout with cancer, at a young and impressionable age, taught her the value of life.
"This time around, it was gratitude," she said. "For life, family, a very supportive husband, friends, and the community I live in -- tremendous gratitude."
Near the beginning of her ordeal, on Jan. 27, 2012, Elsley wrote that it takes a village to heal a sick person.
"And I'm not passive in this process. As they bless me, I have the ability to bless each person whose life I touch. In this way, my illness becomes a blessing to my whole community, and then returns to bless me," she added.
Her husband saw her living this belief.
"I remember one time when she was in for some test or other, lying on the bed, and had these technicians around her. She showed such interest in them, they all wanted to talk to her and tell her about themselves," he said. "Even though she was the patient, it was really interesting to see how her interest in them brought out that response."
Becky Jacobson, Elsley's neighbor, is a nurse who helped out.
"Anyone who has had aggressive chemotherapy feels very sick, and you forget that it's temporary and for your own good," Jacobson said. "It's a truly intense, unpleasant experience, and then your hair falls out. There isn't much to recommend it, except you get better."
In spite of her past health struggles, Elsley was up for the fight. She'd grown up in England and made a new life for herself in America after her first battle with cancer.
She'd also worked for a time as a boatsman's assistant on Grand Canyon river trips, according to her husband, who described her as having a radiant energy. She still loved the water, and kept in shape by swimming laps.
"She's tough," said Jacobson. "You don't think that when you meet her, because she's this small, proper English person, but she's tough."
One of the quilts Elsley created was about healing, and how she'd know it was happening to her.
"One of the effects of the chemotherapy is that your fingernails become ridged," she said, explaining that as the drugs destroy fast-growing cancer cells, they do the same to fast-growing cells in hair and fingernails. "When those ridges grew out, I knew the chemo was leaving."
Other signs of healing were getting outdoors, being able to swim, and getting back to work.
She returned to work this fall, and is teaching an honors class called "Text and Textiles."
"We are going to dye next Thursday," Elsley announced to her class on Sept. 5. "We are prepared to dye."
She was talking about the creative process of adding color to fabric, but what she shared with students to calm their nerves came from lessons taught by cancer.
"This is my mantra," she said, pointing to writing on the wall: Playing is good. Mistakes are necessary to learning. Don't hurry. Do something creative every day. Keep asking "What if?" Then try it.
When asked how a dyeing experiment would turn out, Elsley replied:
"We don't know yet. ... Can you live with that? Trust in the process. In the end you have something you like -- or you don't, and that's OK. You'll learn something from it."
Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.