Feelings at Play

Finding Radiant and Radical Ways to Be Present With Cancer

You’re diagnosed with cancer for the second time in your thirties. You have two young children under the age of five. You’re an entrepreneur in a physically demanding industry. You work with people whose livelihood depends on your creative vision. Rendered motionless by the terminal velocity of this diagnosis, your vision is blurred, your arms are full of questions too heavy for one person to carry, and your physician has the audacity to joke with you that this is really just “a bout of bad luck.”

Can You Feel That?

Toronto-native Nikki Leigh McKean lived that. Two years after surviving treatment for cervical cancer, she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. With bandages still covering the wounds from her bilateral mastectomy, surgical drains hanging from either side of her chest, and with more treatment on the horizon, Nikki asked herself: “How am I going to get through this?” Her response was Let’s Radiate – a creative, participatory, and playful project that invites love and light into the darkest corners of cancer.

Let’s Radiate functions as a 16-day journey that is at once a game, a journal, and an effort to build community. The intent of this project is to be able to take experiences that are rife with negativity, fear, and sorrow (like living with cancer) and turn them into what Nikki calls “the most magical experience of your life.”

To do this, Nikki designed the project around a series of decks of cards: yellow cards that outline daily projects, blue cards that offer inspirational quotes, purple cards that offer bonus daily projects, and cards that simply read “feel that.” Over 16 days, participants complete different activities, ranging from writing a love letter to someone you are working on a relationship with, to hosting a tea party for yourself and an emotion, like anger or sadness. Participants are encouraged to document and share their daily activities on social media using tags like #feelthat and #letsradiate. These posts also become a powerful source of inspiration for other people engaged in the Let’s Radiate project, and a means for growing a community of support around a diverse set of experiences.

Credit: Nikki Leigh McKean

At the core of this project is a radical invitation. Present on every card, and embedded in every activity, is the phrase “feel that.” The potency of this phrase rests in its simplicity; it is both invitational and instructional. To feel that – to be present in a moment, with a feeling, in all its bumps, edges, bruises, and blushing – is something that is rarely asked of people living with serious diseases.

Indeed, people living with diseases like cancer are often asked a particular kind of question, one that is almost impossible to answer: “How are you feeling?”

It’s the kind of question that puts pressure on the response to be coherent, or deliberate, or at least intelligible to the person asking. Life with cancer rarely harbors any of these adjectives. The question itself diverts attention away from the messiness of feeling – from all those sensations that form inarticulable tears, screams, and belly laughs.

Even when we ask our loved ones living with cancer “how are you feeling?” we are asking to hear their optimism. We want them to tell us that despite the persistent itch of medical tape, their wavering appetite, the exhaustion they feel aching from their marrow, and the fears and anxieties that bubble up daily, they won’t leave us. We are almost always asking questions about their feelings that reflect how we want them to feel when it comes to this disease: We hope that they, like us, have hope for their survival.

By asking participants to play through daily activities of feeling, Nikki has created space for people to be present, and for their presence in a feeling to be enough. This is a significant gesture, considering most people living with cancer and other diseases are often asked to reflect on their feelings in ways that pull them out of their present. Moreover, these playful modes of bringing love and light into the lives of people caught in the shadow of a serious disease have important implications for how we think about the role of play in understanding and supporting the experience of living with diseases like cancer.

Anthropologists and social theorists have long argued that play itself is a form of world making. Play, in all of its varied and various forms, is a process of imagining and bringing to life new possibilities for thinking, feeling, and interacting. Sociologist Thomas Henricks contends that play is an important practice for social and cultural change, as it is through play that people express their “commitments to make and inhabit a new world.” Through improvisational acts of play, we bring new worlds to life.

By creating conditions to feel that in its wild and wonderful forms, Nikki and those who participate in Let’s Radiate are opening and sustaining a project that worlds new possibilities of living with and through disease. It is precisely in this unique combination of invitation and instruction to feel that where we see the idea of play being reframed in generative ways.

The forms of play in Let’s Radiate are about more than enjoyment and entertainment. To play with practices of radiating love and light for oneself and others is about grappling with existence in its complexities. Nikki has animated worldly sets of relating that begin with feeling in its rawest sense – not for anyone or toward any prefigured end. This is playing with the very substance of being – a critical and radial act for people living with diseases like cancer, who are often forced to focus on preserving their life, not playing with it.

Credit: Nikki Leigh McKean

To start with a feeling, and to ask what it might mean to care for that feeling, is a bold proposition. It is one we hear as a call to reorient how we, in the healthcare space, approach understanding and solutioning for the experience of living with cancer.

In play-filled projects like Let’s Radiate, we see people living with cancer creating and playing in worlds where their feelings matter – worlds where new, more empowered forms of living with cancer become evident through acts of being present with feeling. When it comes to supporting the lives of people living with cancer, Let’s Radiate gives us a whole new set of questions, and a very different starting point to feel our way toward answers.

Taking this project as an invitation and instruction to shape and realize better futures, what new worlds of living with this disease emerge when we start in and with a feeling? No prescriptive outcomes, no expectations. Just feeling. What comes to light, and what light can we bring to darkness?

the author

Melissa Atkinson-Graham

Dr. Melissa Atkinson-Graham is an anthropologist at Idea Couture.

the author

Christina Doyle

Christina Doyle is a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture.