Portrait of the Artist as a Patient With Cancer

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Beginning in the long, cold winter of 2022, I began a series of hospitalizations to treat my stage 2 non-specific non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. For the next six months, I would spend a week in the hospital every single month.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, John Smelcer

They say “a watched kettle never boils” as a metaphor for the way time seems to pass differently in various circumstances. The opposite might be, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

From my experience, time passed glacially during the weeks I was stuck in the hospital, no matter how modern and nice an institution it may have been. The days grind on with nothing but a television for companions and the occasional visitor.

Being hospitalized is generally a lonely thing. Family has work or school to attend. For me, the hours of the days were measured by the time in between meals. I came to look forward to bedtime, if for no other reason than to end that day’s intolerability. But if you’ve ever stayed in a hospital, you know that the nights are never restful. Throughout the night, nurses and techs wake you from your fitful slumber to take vitals.

I learned to fill the neverending days with art and writing. I literally brought a full-size wooden easel and all the necessary supplies to paint. I set the easel up in my room, and all day long I would work on paintings. I hadn’t really been a painter before, but I thought this would be a good time to learn. How else was I going to pass the time?

Frequently, passersby in the hallway did a double take, seeing me standing before the massive easel wearing a black apron with one hand grasping a colorful palette and the other a paint brush as I leaned onto the canvas. No one had ever seen anything like that before. Patients read books, watched television, quietly ate their tasteless hospital meals or napped throughout the long days, but they didn’t set up a painting studio in their room. They were probably glad I didn’t decide to take up other hobbies like chainsaw carving or axe throwing.

During each week-long stay, I brought a blank canvas to create a new image. During my December stay, for instance, I painted a vintage camper trailer at night in a snowfall, complete with lights lining the edge of the camper. I modeled it after my own 1965 vintage camper. When I got home, I glued Christmas lights onto the canvas, so that once hung on the wall and plugged in the painting glowed in the dark.

During another hospitalization, I painted a picture of myself with my mask on, in the classic style of an artist’s self-portrait. I even painted a portrait of my beloved black lab, Tazlina — “Taz,” for short — at the beach with his favorite swim toy lying on the sand. Nowadays, the finished painting hangs on a wall in my house alongside numerous framed photographs of my family.

Being from Alaska, I painted a polar bear swimming under water. Though I’m not a good painter, I consider it my best work.

Aside from painting, I also wrote poems about what I was going through every day — the good, the bad and the ugly. Early on, I began sending them out to cancer magazines around the world. To my surprise, the world embraced the poems. Almost every single poem I wrote was published as fast as I could write them.

Within months of ringing the bell on a crisp afternoon in February 2023, I published a full-length book of all the poems I had written, arranged chronologically as I had written them — from receiving the diagnosis to walking out of the hospital cancer free. The book, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, is now available everywhere. (It should be noted that I drew the cover image myself.) It’s a book for anyone who is going through cancer, who has survived cancer and for anyone who loves or cares for someone with cancer.

They say that art can be therapeutic in many circumstances. I found this to be especially true during my cancer fight. It gave me something to live for, something to look forward to every day. It provided me with something meaningful and creative to help me endure the tedious, but necessary hospitalizations for cancer treatment.

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