When Art Captures the Cancer Experience

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Having my metastatic breast cancer experience turned into a piece of art was such a meaningful opportunity.

Illustration of a woman wearing a magenta vest.

The invitation was one I couldn’t resist: talk about my experience with metastatic breast cancer with an artist who would turn my words and feelings into a piece of art, followed by an exhibit of all the work of other patient and survivor-artist pairs.

I’ve always loved art, but I am not an artist. Translating what I feel into something visual is totally outside of both my comfort zone and my skillset, but telling my cancer story? That I can do.

Facilitated by Twist Out Cancer, a nonprofit whose Brushes With Cancer has impacted more than 256,000 people in 12 years, I was paired with Chicago artist Lauren Hermann for the spring show in Chicago.

I thought I knew what to expect with this project;I’d talk about my diagnosis and how it makes me feel and Lauren would create something. It’s so simple when you break it down like that. I should have known it would be so much more since Twist Out Cancer’s mission statement is specific about psychosocial support.

I didn’t expect the connection that developed between Lauren and me. We talked multiple times on the phone and over the Zoom, learning about each other and how cancer had impacted our lives. I looked forward to talking with her and answering questions that captured the complexity of living long-term with cancer and added depth to the art she eventually created. I asked my own questions, learning about how she makes a living as an artist, the art gallery where she works and her upbringing in theBaháʼí Faith.

Image of a woman holding up a piece of art.

Chicago artist Lauren Hermann with her creation of Martha's breast cancer experience.

Talking with Lauren was a chance to share some of the things kept deep within me. I don’t lie about my cancer experience. However, the loss, grief for myself and so many friends, anger, frustration and loneliness are not always heard or even welcome in many places that say they support everyone’s experience. Lauren didn’t shy away from what I was telling her.Instead, she asked more questions and used even the dark parts to create a piece of art that resonated with me and others.

I didn’t expect her to be able to capture my experience, even though I looked forward to seeing how she would translate someone else’s words into her own art. I never expected to be stunned by how my life since a stage 4 diagnosis looks when it’s turned into visual art.

Cancer has not been a gift for me in any reasonable sense of the word, yet it has opened me up to taking chances and venturing outside of where I feel most comfortable. I am so grateful that Twist Out Cancer selected me, alongside numerous others, for the Chicago exhibit because it reminded me, again, that sometimes the most meaningful experiences are the ones that come to you from out of the blue.

Here is a photo of Lauren with two of the triptych pieces —the top is a collage that I could not get over. The words “This Is Now. Here,”echo a ring I wear, which Lauren didn’t know about, that says “Here Now.”

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