The ethos of the cancer support charity Cancer Connections is that people who have experienced cancer are the best able to help others who find themselves in a similar situation. Only someone who has had cancer can really understand what it is like. Over the past ten years more than four thousand people have come to Cancer Connections, each telling their own very personal story. By publishing a few of these stories in Connecting with Cancer it is hoped that many other people experiencing cancer might find help and encouragement.
A book about cancer was going to be a hard read; it would need something, perhaps some illustrations with a little humour, to make it easier and more accessible. When Robert Olley was asked if he would illustrate a book it seemed a good idea but when he learned it was to be about cancer he was not so sure. “And you want some humour?” – that would be a big challenge. “I had a successful exhibition of illustrations for Aesop’s Fables but that was a doddle compared with what we were trying to do here!”
Reg Hall (on the left) with Bob Olley
As Bob recalls “After reading some of the stories I chose the easiest one first to see how far I could take the humour, how people would react. ‘Chemo and cream cakes’ was a success, people liked it and I decided to try some more, although some of the others would have to be more serious.
"Chemo and Cream Cakes"
“Having read each story over and over I had to wait for just one word, or maybe a phrase to click on, that would create a picture in my mind. I did not want to meet any of the people involved, they had to remain anonymous. It was a story, a situation I was trying to capture, not a portrait; I didn’t want to upset anyone by making their nose too big. ‘I’ll go ahead and put the kettle on’ is one of my favourites: very simple with two figures and nothing else, but somehow it manages to convey the intense emotion of the moment.”
"I’ll go ahead and put the kettle on"
“Reading some of the stories was quite tough. It became easier as time went on but I had to push the most difficult ones to the end. They were the biggest challenge because I was really, really struggling, trying to squeeze something out of them. With those I chose one key word and then, with my eyes shut, I could see many different images. One by one I deleted them until there was just one left that I felt would work.
“It’s simple when it’s finished and you can read the story with its illustration, but before it’s taken shape there’s nothing there apart from words; to put lines round the words is the difficult part. If you can create an emotional reaction with some black and white lines that is quite an achievement. ’One happy fella’ was like that, and the last one, too, ‘The Tree’: the Latin name meant nothing to me but the leaves looked like hearts and they could weep tears, but there was hope as well.”
"One happy fella" and "The Tree"
After twenty-two months Bob had created fifty-three illustrations that transformed Connecting with Cancer.