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Fighting cancer on film

A woman with a strong connection to North Clare is hoping to return after tackling cancer in both her own personal fight and as the subject of a newly-released documentary.

Filmmaker Allison W Gryphon is obtuse when asked where she is from. She is hesitant, maybe uncomfortable, in her response. She was born in New York. She is a child of divorced parents and moved house a lot. Home? “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area,” she says. She now lives in Los Angeles.

When she visited North Clare for a week before Christmas 2008, Allison was researching a book. If she was also searching for that elusive concept of ‘home’, she didn’t know it. That is perhaps why when she touched down in Heathrow Airport a week later on her way back to the United States, she was blindsided with the flood of emotion that overcame her.

“The night I was meant to go on a plane from London I returned to Doolin because it felt like home to me. I have Irish roots but this was the first place I ever felt like this is where I belong. It was magical to me. I hope when I am old lady and finished making moves that my primary residence will be in Doolin. That is the dream. It was that special,” Allison says.

“I came to Ireland the week before Christmas and I stayed for one week. I left but I came right back. I had flown back to London and I was packing to get on my flight to LA. I was with a friend and I was kind of crying. He said ‘why are you going back to LA right now? Do you need to go back?’ He asked me what I wanted to do. I said ‘I want to go back to Doolin’. It was decided. It was the best decision I made for me in my life,” she recalls.

“I was lucky to experience what I did. I don’t know if everyone in this life gets to know where their spot is. It was unexpected and special but that is my place,” she is certain.

Allison ended up spending seven weeks in North Clare on that occasion but despite a yearning to do so, she has yet to make it back to her beloved Doolin.

“I haven’t been back yet because I got sick. It is the first and only place I felt like home. I grew up with divorced parents and did a lot of moving around. I knew I would find someplace that would feel like home and that was it. It is such a beautiful area not just how it looks but how it feels. I met so many great people there, I feel like I met everyone in Doolin. I am still in contact with lots of them,” she says.

What The F@#- Is Cancer?
As a child Allison always knew she would work at something creative. Now she works as a post production coordinator on films including G-Force, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and TRON: Legacy. Her job involves overseeing everything that happens after a film is shot until it comes out in cinemas and she loves film. This is part of the reason that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2011, her first instinct was to pick up a camera and begin to document her experience. The resulting film, What The F@#- Is Cancer? And Why Does Everybody Have It?, is released in January.

“I was working on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. As soon as it was done I was going to come to Ireland. But I found a lump. It was stage three and it was very serious. Everything got crazy very quickly. The first thing I wanted to do was tell everyone myself what was happening, the next thing I wanted to do was find out everything about it. There were a lot of books and articles and it is fine to read it but a cancer diagnosis is very overwhelming and I really wanted to watch a video,” she explains.

“I wanted to get a 90 minute overview and watch it and see what other people experienced, rather than reading the 12 books I was handed. I thought it would be easier if I saw a movie first. I was really surprised that there wasn’t one.”

Allison had a mastectomy two and a half weeks after finding the lump. Dramatic changes were happening rapidly in her life, her body, but no one had given her the script.

“It was standing on the edge of a cliff and it was you do whatever you can do to stay alive. So I think that I wanted to make the movie that I wanted to see but I think I needed to make it too because I was so frustrated that there was not more cohesive information and I was frustrated with myself for not being educated,” she recalls.
Six weeks after the mastectomy, Allison started four and half weeks of chemotherapy.

“They gave me six weeks to heal and then gave me the maximum legal amount of chemo,” she says.

“They were hopeful when they did the biopsy. They did tests because it was a very large lump and it was clear it had spread to my lymph nodes even before the surgery. There was concern over what type of breast cancer it was. I was lucky it was a ductal, oestrogen-driven cancer because that is one of the most manageable types.”

Allison did not want to be sick during chemotherapy so she spent a lot of time and energy coming up with a diet and exercise regime.
“I was very vigilant of taking care of my body at that time. I am glad I did. I think food and exercise saved me. Mentally the chemo was the hardest thing to do. When I got the diagnosis, everything moved very quickly. Everything moved very quickly until the first day of chemo,” she recalls.
From the day she was diagnosed, she was proactive but the slowness of chemotherapy gave Allison time to think about the trauma of what was happening to her.

“Chemo is a slow process. I was sitting there and it was quiet and there was a nurse there and it was probably the first and only time I lost it. I lost it on every level. I realized that I was about to have an extreme toxic poison dumped into my body to try to kill a cancer and I had to sit with it. I was not busy. I had to sit for eight hours and let poison drop into my body. It was hell. I started crying and I couldn’t’ stop,” she remembers.

“Up until then I had been the pillar of strength. I was very feisty and very focused. From diagnosis to the first day of chemo I was very strong. So when I came undone, everyone was shocked because I had been so strong up to that and suddenly everything came crashing down in one moment,” she explains.

“I think I let myself cry as much as I wanted to. Then I said ‘ok, I am done now’. Crying relieves pressure but it doesn’t solve problems. By the end of my session I felt good. I was happy. That day was the metamorphosis,” she adds.

Allison was aware that she couldn’t afford to dwell on the negatives. Financially and emotionally, she needed to continue working.
“It was interesting because my life got very busy but it got easier because I only focused on what was very important. It was clarity that I have never experienced before in my life. I only did what I needed to do for me. All the little stuff we fill our lives with, I didn’t do any of those things because I couldn’t. Truthfully it was very liberating,” she reveals.

As well as going to work, Allison worked on her film and attended her medical appointments. In all three areas she sound “tremendous support.”
A week after chemo, Allison had reconstructive surgery. This was followed by radiation treatment.

“I had reconstructive surgery and I was so happy to have balance in my body in again and to feel full. I was also very upset. That was unexpected. I was happy to have had the surgery but I was very confused because suddenly I had these new boobs and a new body and it wasn’t what I had before. I was so grateful to have it and so confused that that was it, that this is now my shape. Then I felt the guilt where I thought why am I upset, I am alive,” she says.

Body image
The huge change a body goes through because of cancer and treating it, was something Allison was unprepared for.

“From the chemo my hair changed. From the surgery my breasts changed. For the reconstruction they took fat from my legs and other parts of my body so it affected all my body. I have a vision of myself that is the old me and then I look in the mirror and I think oh it is different. Sometimes that is hard.”
Allison now has medical check ups every three months. As well as making the film What The F@#- Is Cancer? And Why Does Everybody Have It? to help answer questions about the disease, she has also set up a “cancer fighting network”, the Why Foundation.
“I feel good. I live very differently. I feel a lot more freedom in my life. Maybe that is what looking at death does to you. I am happy. I have a commitment to the Why Foundation and the movie and everything. It is all about answering the questions we have in the day-to-day cancer fight. There are a lot of organisations that raise money and that raise awareness but in this movie I am trying to deal with the day-to-day issues. It is the little things that get you through it when you are experiencing cancer and that is what we are about,” she explains.

What The F@#- Is Cancer? And Why Does Everybody Have It? is pre-released on iTunes now, and will be released worldwide on January 7, 2014.

“The movie answers all the questions I had in the first 72 hours after I was diagnosed. It answers all the basic questions like what does a radiation machine look like, what are the stages of cancer, how important is diet and so on. It is a very practical guide to getting through cancer,” Allison outlines.
The film is not just about breast cancer but all types of the disease. While it is aimed at people with cancer, it is also geared at caregivers.

“Caregivers are given a voice in this movie. What I found when I was sick is that I think it is harder for the caregiver than the person who is sick. There is so much pressure on them. There are tools in this film for people with cancer and also caregivers,” she concludes.

Allison’s love of North Clare is also evident in the documentary with the works of Phillip Morrison forming the backdrop to many of the interviews. Allison hopes to return to Doolin in May.


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