Beth Akister's journey to be unbroken by cancer

For Beth Akister, breast cancer wasn’t a death sentence, but an opportunity for a change of lifestyle and personal growth.

She was diagnosed in April 2017 with stage three breast cancer, when two tumours were discovered in her right breast. She had a mastectomy and a breast reconstruction five weeks later, and a “kiss my boob goodbye party” beforehand to farewell her breast. 

Later, a third tumour was found and that the cancer had spread to Akister’s chest wall and through her lymph nodes, requiring chemotherapy and radiation.

And so began weekly sessions of chemotherapy for six months, followed by six weeks of radiotherapy, which finished in March this year.

During the long months of treatment the then 46-year-old who now lives in the Blue Mountains but was residing in Melbourne at the time, discovered a passion for creating art from animal bones and metal, which seemed to help her through the cancer journey. 

“I’ve always made stuff and I’ve always been attracted to sculpture,” Akister explains.

A welding short course six months before the cancer diagnosis gave Akister the ability to manipulate metal and she made the most of these newfound skills, setting up her own business BattyFishPye Metal.

“I loved rusty metal and I’m a pretty keen gardener,” she says.

“The bone obsession came out of owning death. I’m mortal.”

While she stared down her mortality, it wasn’t without fear.

“I was in too much shock to be scared at the start. But it was scary and it was scary for my parents,” Akister recalls. 

“When I was diagnosed it didn’t seem like the massive C word. You own it and get on with it,” she says.

“You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you respond to it.”

When Akister heard from a friend about the body art/documentary project Unbroken, late last year, she was immediately interested.

“I felt unbroken by cancer. It gave me a lot of strength,” she explains.

“We can all go through full-on things and come out of it possibly stronger than we went in and imperfection isn’t a terrible thing. My humour got me through. It is what it is.”

Unbroken celebrates Australians who have found greater strength within themselves following personal hardship or challenge, addressing issues such as trauma, sexuality, disability, mental illness, body image, asylum seeking and sexual assault.

Through body painting and photography a diverse ensemble of individuals celebrate their truth, resilience and purpose, in art and in life.

Inspired by the Japanese art form Kintsugi, which is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum, the participants were painted from head to toe, while sharing their story.

“The painting was very powerful. You were getting naked in front of people and being painted everywhere. It was cathartic and great to own the unbroken side of it and come out stronger, if not a little cracked,” Akister says.

One of the producers of Unbroken, Braiden Asciak, says it was an enlightening and empowering experience for the participants.

“They all deal with trauma in various ways. Beth has owned her trauma and sees it in a very positive light,” he says.

“With 10 diverse subjects, each with a different story to tell, we hope to to inspire people with the knowledge that there is always hope. That imperfection and impermanence can make us stronger.

“It’s Australia’s first body painting that collides with stories of trauma.”

The production crew are in the process of developing a pilot in the hope the documentary will be picked up for broadcast. 

The portraits will also be part of an exhibition at the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne in January.

Additionally, up to 90 minutes of documentary video content across the 10 stories will be installed to complement the portrait photography.

The producers have started another fundraising campaign to cover some of the costs of the exhibition. For more information visit the website: https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/unbroken-an-exhibition/.

Before the cancer diagnosis, Akister had been made redundant from a sustainability project manager/researcher role at a Melbourne university.

It had been 10 years in a high-stress environment, which Akister believes could have contributed to getting cancer in the first place.

She had decided a quieter life without stress was in order, and it wasn’t too long before she would create a completely different world for herself.

Midway through the chemotherapy and “bald as a badger” Akister met Ben Stubenrauch at a party and they hit it off immediately.

He could see beyond the bald head, and still made her feel feminine, Akister recalls. When her hair started to grow back, but not quickly enough, it was Ben’s dreds Akister attached to her fledgling hair growth to make her feel more feminine.

Ben had grown up in the Blue Mountains and worked as an outdoor guide here for 20 years. They moved to Faulconbridge in March, to acreage where they live off the grid.

It’s very basic living with a longdrop toilet, no electricity – just solar panels and a generator for back-up, rainwater tanks, and a wood heater to keep them toasty warm in their small, makeshift home.

Free-roaming chooks do as they please, unbothered by rescue dog Jango who is never far from Akister’s side. She has a vegie garden, and her bone and metal art work and various odds and ends give the place an artistic quirkiness, yet comforting homeliness.

Visitors are welcome, and they have their own space in a separate, large, stand-alone tent.

“My dream for here is to make it a sculpture park and Airbnb,” Akister says.

“This was part of my realisation from cancer. You’ve got one life and it’s up to you how you spend it.”