Andrea Malinsky Mason has been dealt a difficult hand of cards in life — one that would cause many to fold.
Mason has battled multiple sclerosis, Stage III metastatic breast cancer and depression. She has weathered abusive relationships, an alcoholic spouse and divorce.
But rather than letting her circumstances dictate her outlook on life, Mason chose positivity. She grappled with obstacles but never let them stand in her way. Instead, she decided to share her story with others in the form of her own book, “Chemical Butterfly.”
Mason has been a writer ever since she was young. She always was fascinated with literature, and her mother instilled in her a respect and appreciation for proper grammar, spelling and penmanship. Those carried her through college, and it led to a career in corporate writing.
“I worked for Revlon in New York City,” she says. “I started writing press releases and announcements, and eventually, I worked my way up to annual reports and writing speeches and presentations for Fortune 100 CEOs. I always had a reverence for accurate, clear and compelling information.”
Soon after her career took off, she experienced her first health crisis — a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age 24. It came as a shock for Mason, who considers herself a health-conscious person. At the time, she thought it was easier to just push the symptoms to the side and hide them.
“At that time, the world wasn’t as accommodating of people with disabilities,” she says. “I was working, traveling, well on my way to throwing the world off its axis, and then I got this surprise diagnosis, and I thought my life was over. The medication wasn’t very good then, and I ended up hiding it for fear of being ostracized. I hid it from everybody except my family and managed it for a long time.”
After her stint in New York City she moved to Boston to work for TJX Companies. At age 31, she was diagnosed with Stage III metastatic breast cancer.
“When you’re doing everything ‘right,’ and what everyone is telling you to do, and then you get handed these major health challenges, you just kind of have perpetual feelings of injustice,” she says. “(But) my life was never driven by fear. I always had the perspective of, ‘OK, what are we going to do? We can beat this.’”
After learning she was a writer, many people Mason met during her grueling treatments told her she should write about her experience. But Mason had no desire to write about the long road she was traveling. Her feelings were complex and profound, and it was difficult to translate them into words on a page. That’s when she found collages.
“I had never made a collage before in my life,” she says. “Like a madwoman, I was sitting on my floor ripping apart magazines and assembling shapes and colors, and for me, it was just an easier and quicker way to consolidate a very complex situation. After I finished them, I was relieved, and then I didn’t know what to do with them, so I put them in a file cabinet and never thought about them again.”
LIFE AFTER CANCER
Shortly after beating cancer, Mason found herself thrown back into what felt like a different version of reality than the one she had known before.
After spending the bulk of two years in a cancer treatment center, she realized she was expected to go back to her previous life.
But for Mason, her previous life no longer existed.
“It’s my desire that when people view my collages or read my poems, they realize they’re not alone in their struggles.” — Andrea Malinsky Mason
“Everything in the world has changed and you have changed after battling cancer for so long,” she says. “Your innocence is gone, and it’s hard to fit back in. It is life-changing, and there are obstacles that cancer fighters face after their treatment is complete. First of all, you constantly live with this cloud over your head that, ‘I had cancer, and will I ever get it again?’ Plus, you’re marginalized for important things like employment, health insurance and life insurance.
“It’s isolating and very lonely,” she says. “That’s when I had even more feelings of unfairness and betrayal, which caused me to revisit my collages and start writing poetry.”
Mason describes her poems as honest, realistic, somewhat raw and reflective of the emotions she felt at the time.
As her friends and family read the poems and saw the collages, they told her she should try to get them published. Her big break came when pediatric surgeon Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was writing a book, read one of her poems and asked if he could include it in the book.
After joining him for some book signings, she decided to pull all of her collages and poems together into one unit. Between the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, “Chemical Butterfly” was born.
The poems and collages in the book are honest, in-depth evaluations of Mason and her journey. Some question her beliefs and self worth, while others highlight both her achievements and her failures. But out of the cocoon of cancer treatment emerged a butterfly.
“I call it ‘Chemical Butterfly,’ because I was overwhelmed by how driven treatment was by the numbers of everything — your red blood cell count, your white blood cell count, how many treatments you have left, what’s your weight, what’s your height — everything was numbers,” she says. “I felt like I was just swimming in a sea of numbers. In addition, I felt like this lovely thing that’s being dissected and saturated in all these chemicals.”
Mason enjoys speaking to groups and helping other people through her own experiences. She wants to expand upon “Chemical Butterfly” with more speaking opportunities and book signings.
“I feel really good that I’m helping people,” she says. “In the end of all of this, I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything in the world. It made my heart grow bigger; it made me more aware of people’s struggles and challenges. … (Cancer is) a crushing blow can happen to anybody. Life doesn’t discriminate, but it’s not the challenges you’re faced with that define you. It’s how you respond to those challenges.”