Dealing With Life-Changing Cancer My Own Way


When I sit down with my paint brush, despite my cancer history, I don’t feel different anymore.

I sit down with my paintbrush and an empty canvas in front of me. The ideas are just pouring out of me. Should I paint a landscape, perhaps a portrait of one of my grandchildren or the puppy my daughter just took home last week, the beach I dreamed about last night? It is endless; the creations I want to make. I’m so thankful to be able to sit here with my head so clear and do something I love.

You know how the saying goes. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this happening to me.” What I thought was just a sore throat turned out to be much worse.

I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the base of my tongue in the fall of 2017. The cancer was very aggressive, so radiation treatments and chemotherapy began immediately.

The radiation and chemo treatments took a toll on my body, my lifeand my family. It was a lot to handle, and the cancer progressed at an alarming rate even with the treatments. Within months, I was eating through a Gtube and breathing through a trachea due to the mass still growing inside my mouth. My strength was quickly dwindling and because of the size of the tumor, it became impossible to talk let alone be understood when I tried to speak.

Though I was trying very hard to remain positive, it was getting progressively more challenging to keep my head up because of the continuous setbacks. Those setbacks combined with the radiation and chemotherapy not being effective left me with my last and only option: surgery. It was going to be a life-altering, long and grueling surgery; but it was my last chance at life.

This is when my oncologist introduced me to the person that would change my life forever. The person that would lead my surgery and ultimately give me a chance to live! IU Health ENT surgeon, Dr. Matravadi. From the first time I met Dr. Matravadi, I knew he was the right person for the job. He spoke with confidence, had a great bedside mannerand I trusted him with my life.

Whilethey found the cancer had spread even more during the surgery, it was still considered a success in removing all they could. Fourteen hours later, the surgery was complete. I left the room without a voice box and taking the ability to speak away and I would breathe through the trachea permanently. It would be a long road to recovery through rehab and discovering what I refer to as “my new normal.” I battled multiple infections that would not heal normally because of all the radiation and chemotherapy that took its toll on my body.

From the beginning of my diagnosis, I had a social worker, Michelle Hoy, who became a huge part of my support team. She helped me shift my focus from negativity and dwelling on how I looked and functioned differently to what I could do moving forward. She gave me tools to use when dealing with the rollercoaster of emotions as a survivor. To this day six years later, keeps me moving in a positive direction. Michelle had a saying that she would stress to me, “living the why.” The “why” for me is everything positive that has happened and the tough things that I have overcome.

I was really into art as a kid and my passion for creating went well into my young adult years. But as life goes, my job and starting a family left little time for this hobby. During an extended hospital stay because of an infection, I was given a sketch book and some drawing pencils to pass the time.

It was like a light bulb went off. My family now grown and me no longer working due to my diagnosis, my former passion of art, became my current way of expression. I could express myself to the world now without using words.

It started with those first simple sketches, but I have since taken my creativity to a whole new level. Everything I draw or paint has a special meaning to me. After what seemed like the longest fight with cancer, treatments, surgery and rehabilitation, I have found the thing that helps me feel whole.

Four years ago, I was asked to submit my artwork to the IU Health Complete Life Art Show sponsored by the Hero’s Foundation and IU Health. I have been a participant every year since. It has led me down such a positive path that even if I could talk, I would not be able to put into words how amazing this show has been for myself and others. Through the art I have created and submitted each year, I have been able to express my gratitude to all the people that helped me get through this difficult experience. Whether it be portraits of a special nurse that went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable during my stay or surgeon who saved my life with his impeccable skills. I expressed my gratitude through art. All these people are more than doctors, nurses and therapists. They have become very special people in my life, friends. They have shown me that there can be life after a life changing experience, such as cancer.

When I sit down with my paint brush, I don’t feel different anymore. It makes me feel normal and I think so clearly. I truly believe that different forms of art can be such a great tool to so many. More than just the patients who endure the hardships of their illness, but to the family members and care takers that suffer right along with us.

The pandemic brought out what I and so many already knew: there are so many heroes in the medical community. I continue to battle every day and I know I will for the rest of my life. I continue to surround myself with people I love, my painting and a positive outlook for the future.

I would like to leave with a quote that I sent with my first painting I ever submitted to the IU Health Complete Life Art Show.

“Cancer can take away my voice, it can alter the way I breathe and eat, but it can never take away my ability to find the good in every day. It is out there, you just have to be willing to look for it.”

To the cancer community, I wish everyone the best.

This post was written and submitted by Brian J. Bullerdick. The article reflects the views of Brian J. Bullerdick and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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