For about a year, Kalou Koefoed knew that something wasn't right.

While busy with her front of house role at Tauranga Art Gallery, raising her young son with husband Rob, playing social soccer and working on her own art projects, she didn't pay much attention to the pain in her bum.

Nothing but haemorrhoids, she thought. Inconvenient, but harmless.

Initially, Kalou's GP wasn't too concerned either. Cream from the pharmacy did nothing, and the symptoms were gradually getting worse.

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Becoming slightly more worried, an appointment with a specialist was on the cards. Going private was no option mainly due to the cost, so Kalou opted for the waiting list.

After four months she got to see a surgeon at Tauranga Hospital. She went alone, as Rob had to work and she still thought all was fine.

During the consultation, the specialist mentioned he wanted to do a biopsy. He gave Kalou a clipboard with a form to take to another hospital department so she could make a follow up appointment.

While on her way, Kalou glanced over the form in her hand. The specialist had written two words that she didn't expect and stopped her in her tracks.

Suspected cancer.

Artist Kalou Koefoed at the Matapihi Bridge which features in her prints and the video work from her virtual art exhibition. Photo: Patrick Neale.
Artist Kalou Koefoed at the Matapihi Bridge which features in her prints and the video work from her virtual art exhibition. Photo: Patrick Neale.

The very next day, Kalou was back in hospital for the biopsy. Rob was with her this time and the doctor, in quite a matter of fact way, told them "yes, it is cancer".

The options of treatment were explained to them and Kalou was told that a combination of chemotherapy and radiation would be best. If that didn't work, surgery would be needed which would mean a permanent colostomy bag.

They had to wait to find out what stage the cancer was at. Stage one would mean small and likely to be treated successfully, stage three or four would mean something much worse.

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"During this time, I was a bit of an emotional wreck. What if this was it? What if there wasn't as much time as I thought there was. Still, we carried on as normal and we decided not to tell our son until we knew more about what I was dealing with," Kalou says.

It took 12 days to find out how far the cancer had progressed.

"When we finally heard back, we were told it was stage one. The tumour, or basaloid, was 2cm long. That was a huge relief to be honest, and it meant a plan could be put in place," she says.

Now they knew it wasn't terminal Kalou told their son Sebastian, who was age 12.

"Thankfully, he took it really well. I somehow knew that if I seemed to cope okay, he would be okay."

While awaiting treatment, Kalou made some important lifestyle changes to increase her chances of a speedy recovery. She stopped smoking, adapted a healthier diet, and meditated more regularly.

"Being mindful and focusing on what's important became crucial. It sounds cliché but all the bullshit just doesn't matter any more," she says.

Kalou at home with the family cat Mr Black. Photo: Supplied.
Kalou at home with the family cat Mr Black. Photo: Supplied.

Driving home from Tauranga to Mount Maunganui not long after starting treatment, Kalou spotted a sign on Hewlett's Rd that said Rear Unit. Noticing the irony, she made a drawing of it as soon as she got home. It became the first drawing of The Basaloid Project, her art project that was planned to be launched at The Incubator Creative Hub on April 9 but will now go digital.

Kalou's treatment at the Kathleen Kilgour Centre and Tauranga Hospital's radiation centre was bearable at first. She says it was a strange addition to normal life and she usually went for her blasts during her lunchbreaks. Soon, it became much tougher.

"Chemo was horrible. You feel like you are dying, like life is being sucked out of you. Radiation accumulates, and I felt like I had been microwaved. Three weeks in, it became hard to find a happy place," she says.

"I had to learn how to lower the bar temporarily and not worry that there was so much to do. I repeated to myself that I am brave. I am strong. I can do this."

While going through treatment, Kalou watched a lot of TV which is unusual as she prefers to create art and write in her free time. She says a lot of what she watched had "cancer talk".

"I binge watched Breaking Bad and another show called The Big C. I also looked into Farah Fawcett's story, who had the same type of cancer and unfortunately died from it."

From riding across it to work to creating the first Matapihi print, the bridge became the never-ending tunnel metaphor for the Basaloid Project. Photo: Patrick Neale.
From riding across it to work to creating the first Matapihi print, the bridge became the never-ending tunnel metaphor for the Basaloid Project. Photo: Patrick Neale.

Kalou says she feels extremely lucky that her six weeks of treatment worked. This was confirmed on March 2, at her most recent follow up appointment at the Kathleen Kilgour Centre. She is cancer free.

"I know how lucky I am that the cancer hadn't spread. Not everyone is that lucky. I now have a new appreciation of life and gratitude plays a major role."

Instead of complaining when she's stuck in traffic, Kalou looks at the sky. She enjoys drawing, going on walks, and being around the people she loves.

"I am grateful I am not sick any more and that my body is in one piece," she says.

To turn her ugly experience with cancer into something brave and beautiful, Kalou created the Basaloid Project, an art project with three different elements.

Named after the type of cancer that resided temporarily in her rear unit, she has created a 32-page graphic novel, plus an exhibition and a series of workshops.

"The project is above all a call to creativity. It has been a way for me to make sense of things."

The Basaloid Project has received incredible support and feedback from people in the local creative community already, with artist and author of Rufus Marigold, Ross Murray, endorsing it by saying it is "a mystical, poetic journey of self-reckoning. The Basaloid Project turns a confrontation with mortality into a creative manifesto".

As The Incubator gallery space is now closed to the public, Kalou has installed the exhibition alone on the day before the alert level 4 restrictions came into place. It launches virtually on April 9 via Facebook.com/rollingaskalou and instagram.com/rollingaskalou

The artist installed her show at The Incubator Gallery the day before lockdown. Photo: Supplied.
The artist installed her show at The Incubator Gallery the day before lockdown. Photo: Supplied.

A rare disease

In New Zealand, around 250 new cases of anal cancer are identified each year, and it appears more often in women than in men. Smoking tobacco and HPV (human papillomaviruses) are significant risk factors.

Research shows rates also increase notably with age, with the highest figures observed in those aged 70 and over. It's unusual for people younger than 40 to be affected, even though Kalou was 38 when diagnosed.

Dr Miriama Delaibatiki, Radiation Oncologist at Tauranga's Kathleen Kilgour Centre, confirms that anal cancer is rare.

"It accounts for less than 2.5 per cent of all cancers in the gastrointestinal tract, with an annual incidence of about 1-2 in 100,000 people," she explains.

Last year, nine patients with this type of cancer were treated at Kathleen Kilgour Centre, of which eight were Bay residents.

"The signs and symptoms are bleeding from the anus, pain in or around the anus, a growth in the anus, itching, and other abnormal discharge," Dr Delaibatiki says.

"Although these symptoms can occur also with non-cancer conditions, they should see their doctor if the symptoms persist or if they have any concern."

The outlook for patients with anal cancer is often better than for other types of bowel cancer, especially if it is identified early.

Bowel Cancer New Zealand — bowelcancernz.org.nz

The graphic novel for The Basaloid Project is illustrated by hand with fine ink pens. Photo: Supplied.
The graphic novel for The Basaloid Project is illustrated by hand with fine ink pens. Photo: Supplied.

The Basaloid Project

With the Basaloid Project, Kalou hopes to inspire people to live their best creative lives and to "seriously grab life by the balls". The project has three parts:

The graphic novel
Told through metaphor and symbolism, it's a story about journeying through the storm and emerging on the other side. It's a dark fairy tale about hope, resilience, vulnerability, fear, love, purpose, and renewal. Illustrated by hand with fine ink pens.

The exhibition
The exhibition features 24 works, all of which make up the pages of the Basaloid graphic novel. Some are comic book style, some are large scale, and there is sculpture and a video work.

The workshop
Offering healing through art, this workshop is a tool to help people come to terms with what has happened to them in life and how to move beyond it and find a sense of purpose. Participants can explore their own story and creativity as they create a one-page autobiographical comic. The workshop will be available to download free from April 9.

The Basaloid Project has received funding from Creative New Zealand's Creative Communities Scheme.