Love helps win cancer fight

Love helps win cancer fight

An artist has used his toughest times to make some positive changes in life

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Photo: Nora Tam
It is not easy for most people to recover fully from a life-threatening illness. Yet Simon Birch, a Hong Kong-based British artist, has experienced a successful battle with cancer, and turned his lowest times into a positive outlook in life.

Birch, 40, who works at a studio in Ap Lei Chau, was diagnosed with cancer of the immune system three and a half years ago. At the time he had only one thing on his mind: to fight it.

"I treated it like a project ... my battle with cancer," says the 1.88m tall artist, who was born in Brighton, in southern England, but has called Hong Kong home since 1997. "I researched everything I could about the disease; I tried Chinese and alternative medicine on top of my chemo- and radiotherapy. I changed my diet totally and exercised as much as I could. I believed if I did the right things and stayed positive, I would be able to conquer my disease. And I added one more ingredient to my medicine - love."

He invited the 30 most important people in his life, including his family and close friends, to a dinner during which he broke the bad news and asked for their help. "I told them I wanted to live and that they all had to help save me."

Over the following months, during intensive hospital treatment, all of his friends made important contributions. Some prepared meals and special healthy juices, while others supplied words of encouragement and good company, or read to him when he was lying ill in bed or even shaved their own hair off when he lost his because of the treatment.

Then, after six months, a miracle happened: he was cured. Although he cannot say what has made his disease go away, he believes he has experienced something extraordinary. "When you tell others you love them, you'll be surprised to see how humane your friends are," he says. "The experience [over those months] was the most beautiful and moving I've ever had."

The battle has made him more optimistic and empathetic towards people. He has also become more positive about pursuing his artistic career, despite the fact he has no formal training. "I quit school at 17 because I thought I was a failure. I also left home then as I wanted to be independent."

For years he did odd jobs, including working as a DJ in bars in Australia and as a construction worker in Hong Kong, helping to build the Tsing Ma Bridge.

Yet while doing all his random jobs, his passion for art remained. "I've never stopped painting all these years; it's like a hobby that stays with me."

He made the decision to follow his dream of becoming an artist almost by chance. "One of my friends bought a painting of mine one day and, after that, I thought maybe I should have an exhibition - and I did. The rest just followed."

His impressionistic paintings on large canvases and huge installation pieces have no particular themes, except that they show some kind of duality. For him, life often has contrasts: sad and beautiful; pain and pleasure; decay and growth.

His exhibition, Hope and Glory, staged in Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay, last year drew appreciative crowds. Last month, his work was on show in the Laughing in the Mouth Full of Blood exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences in the Mid-Levels.

With a few friends, he has also launched Future Industry, an organisation which supports innovative, large-scale art projects in Hong Kong. It gives young artists a platform to experiment and exhibit their work.

"Art is about sharing and reaching out to people; it can make us human and a better person," he says. "I'm lucky to be alive and want to share with others [the idea] that life is not necessarily sad and that we should embrace it and find a way to work things out."

To learn more about Birch's work, visit www.simon-birch.com

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