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The Face of Art Therapy: Paintings, Poetry and Pristine Settings

Posted Jun 22 2011 11:52pm

Gazebo in local park

Looking out over a variety of faces I wondered what each person was thinking. I was tasked with giving the closing remarks and prayer to an assorted audience of cancer patients and medical practitioners in a local park. The occasion was an exhibition of circulating artwork from Oncology on Canvas hosted by our local cancer center. Oncology On Canvas honors the pathways of those whose lives have been affected by cancer. Their stories are told through art and narrative, with the hope that the rich tapestry of emotions conveyed in these pieces of art provides hope and inspiration to others.

Hors d’oeuvres for the taking ranged from colorful veggie plates with three types of hummus to fruit salads and an appropriately scripted cake. Watercolors and acrylics by patients across America perched on easels around the main pavilion. The gazebo shown in the accompanying photo sat just beyond the path of paintings. Each artwork told a story–and touched the heartstrings of all but the coldest soul. Because this event did not focus on breast cancer, no pink merchandise marred the scenery, and for that I was thankful.

When I was first asked to speak at this special celebration of life, the social worker merely asked if I would share a poem. She knew from my presentation to her cancer support group a few months earlier that I wrote poetry.  After I returned from Ireland, she called again, wondering if I could also offer closing thoughts and a prayer. ”Sure,” I said. “I can absolutely do that. Thanks so much for thinking of me.”

Having declined an offer to speak earlier to a “cancer survivor” group from a different hospital because of my Ireland trip, I was clearly amazed that local cancer centers sought me as a speaker. What did I know? I simply experienced two bouts of early-stage breast cancer and mild lymphedema.  Later-stage cancer patients or physicians and nurse practitioners would have far more knowledge about the latest practices and could give testimonies of more involved treatments. Yet still they wanted a patient like me, a willing spokesperson.

In preparing the closing remarks I pondered my trek through this wilderness called cancer. What would resonate with people having such disparate types of malignancies? What would hold their attention, especially since, prior to my talk, people would be milling about picking up their “survivor” gift, an Asiatic lily bulb? Then I thought of The Tale of Two Wolves , an inspirational Cherokee story I had enjoyed reading in a blog post.

Perfect, I mused. This will inspire them to feed the right wolf. And will go with the art theme.

Then I jotted down in my notes some hopeful statistics in our medical progress to stamp out cancer for good. Interspersed in the mix were selected aphorisms and inspirations from my own life. Finally, I composed an appropriate prayer to recite at this faith-based hospital event. The haiku I chose to share?

Faux Cocktail

No high tea for me

My cocktail hour starts at four

Chemo-infused cure?

The day of the talk I was invited to participate in an American Cancer Society (ACS) webinar in a nearby town to get re-certified as a Reach to Recovery volunteer. For the uninitiated, this volunteer program, sponsored by ACS, matches a patient volunteer to other patients with similar demographic and cancer backgrounds who request a volunteer to speak to them. I had to hurry from that training session to the park where the artist-oncology celebration was unfolding. Never a dull moment in the busy life of yours truly.

When my turn came to speak, as I looked over the crowd, I saw my face reflected in the faces of the people, eager for any hopeful word on which to hang their baseball–and other–caps. This audience, representing all types of cancer backgrounds, of all ages and races, came to find solace, some understanding souls. Some wrapped scarves cleverly to disguise bald heads or scarred necks; no one sported a “Fight like a Girl” beanie. Some looked pale. Some sad. Others had a healthy glow, grinning from ear to ear. It was a motley crew, my kind of people.

A few years ago I never would have thought that cancer centers would even consider having patients address other patients in a setting like this. But more than one physician has told me that medical professionals cannot reach their patients the way another patient can, especially one who has been through the ringer and come out the other side, with worn seams to prove it. A confident patient, one who is willing to speak out and sprinkle hope-dust throughout the crowd, speaks volumes. It’s a person whom a patient often inherently trusts more than a doctor, even a beloved oncologist.

This phenomenon of hospitals seeking out patients as spokespeople fascinated me. Patients do find comfort in other patients’ reassuring–as well as anxious–words. Patients seem to prefer support groups facilitated by other patients rather than by clinical psychologists. While we can’t know anyone’s unique experience, we at least know what it’s like to be diagnosed with cancer: the initial emotional reaction, the seemingly instant decisions to be made, the treatment(s), and the universal fear of recurrence.

After I spoke, we strolled the grounds of the park together, admiring the bold strokes made by patients on canvas and watercolor boards to express their feelings. As an artist myself, I appreciated the gloss and matte finishes, the textures born of vivid imaginations and anguished cries. Many made me weep. I don’t know if any of these artists died after creating their masterpieces, but if they did, their memories live on in the tales told by brush.

This day-in-the-park will certainly live on in my mind and heart. Knowing how art is cathartic (maybe that’s why the word “art” is in this word), maybe I’ll enroll in the free art-therapy courses this center offers to cancer patients. If I can find the time. If life will slow down. If I can only… You get the picture.

What do you do to bring out your deepest emotions about cancer? Do you write? Do you confide in your closest friends? Do you sing? Do you dance? Do you speak to other patients? Do you draw or paint? Or have you another outlet, one tailored to your spirit?

My Grand Canyon acrylic painting (from a photo taken by my Dad)

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