Sunday, November 3, 2013

Art as a Healing Vehicle for Cancer

2013 was a difficult year. As some of you already know, in the spring I was diagnosed with a low grade lymphoma, a type of blood cancer affecting the lymph system. Since I wasn't experiencing any of the symptoms of the disease I was told the best approach was to wait until they manifested themselves before beginning treatment. The oncologist said it could be years before symptoms occurred, so that was good news, if there is any good news to be had in a cancer diagnosis. 
A few weeks later I developed a pain that shot down the inside of my leg and I thought I had pulled a groin muscle. It got to the point where the discomfort was keeping me awake at night so I went in for more tests. A CAT scan indicated I had a lesion on my pelvis and I was sent for a consultation with an orthopedic specialist. A biopsy indicated the lesion was cancerous and I was told it was eating away at my pelvis and this was the likely the source of my pain. It turned out to be an aggressive lymphoma (different from the low grade lymphoma I was diagnosed with weeks earlier). My oncologist started me right away on chemotherapy. The worst part for me was that the cancerous lesion ate a hole in the bone before it was discovered. Since it was near my hip, they didn’t want me putting any weight on it for fear it could break. So as a precaution they had me on crutches or in a wheelchair for the six months I did chemo. That was a big pain in the butt. I spent the spring and summer going through six, three-week cycles of chemotherapy. It was quite an ordeal and something I hope I never have to do again. The most recent PET scan indicated that any remaining lymphoma cells were undetectable and below the sensitivity level of the instruments they used to measure them; that’s the best outcome you can have! Now I have to go in for four weeks of daily radiation treatments to kill any residual cancer cells that the chemo might have missed. Unfortunately, I still have the low grade lymphoma so I’m not totally out of the woods yet and there is a 25% chance that the aggressive lymphoma could return in three to five years; that also means there is a 75% chance that it won’t. Believing from the onset that the lymphoma had likely compromised the integrity of my hip, I was told that I should anticipate hip replacement surgery when chemotherapy was over. 
In early October I had an encouraging meeting with my orthopedic surgeon who said the post-chemo x-rays and my last CAT scan indicated that the weight bearing portion of my hip joint was not compromised by the cancer as they originally suspected. He thought it would be safe to forego the hip replacement and recommended I slowly start adding weight-bearing to that leg again and start walking; which I have been doing for a few weeks now. I've certainly developed a new appreciation for what people confined to a wheelchair have to deal with on a daily basis.
My lack of mobility made it difficult to get down to my studio to work on my portraits of contemporary Native beadworkers so that project was put on hold. By late summer I was wasting a lot of time sitting on the living room couch staring out the window or watching TV so I decided to do something productive. I got a drawing pad out and started doing some pen and ink sketches. The technique involves juxtaposing and overlapping thousands of tiny dots with a fine-tipped, felt tip pen, to create the modeling or shading you see on the pieces. 
Art is often born of human experience, both positive and negative. These sketches were unlike any of my representational portraits of Native people that are well planned out and can take hundreds of hours to execute; these are very graphic and produced almost spontaneously in comparison. The earliest ones were done in a single sitting of just a few hours. When I began to sketch I had no idea what would come out – I would just start to draw and the result was perhaps a reflection of my psychological state at the time. All the sketches tend to be faces in some form; some take on an alien, bird or animal-like appearance. Don’t ask me what they mean as I haven’t figured it out yet. They were just my way of dealing with the cancer and bringing a face to it. Perhaps they represent different faces of my lymphoma and are part of the healing process in my daily battle with cancer. My first reaction to them was how bizarre, curious, weird and fantastic they were. As I progressed, the designs became more complex and I worked on them from six to eight hours a day, usually getting one completed in two to three days.  They started as a way to pass the time but eventually developed into something more. I was determined to not let the cancer prevent me from doing something I loved.
The “faces” can be a little spooky, even to me, but cancer is a scary disease. There were times when I wondered if all this chemo was worth it. It did kill the cancer but it also killed part of my spirit. I've come to see the sketches as a mechanism that is not only giving a face to my cancer but is helping me cope with it on a psychological level. It’s also helping to restore my spirit. Each represents a dialogue between my subconscious mind and my healing body. Each expresses a different visual voice; an expressive image. Perhaps these sketches are the vehicle through which the psychological component of my cancer will be culled from my mind – the chemo culling it from my body. To me, they appear to be "drawing" out the many faces of my cancer.
The pieces are illustrated below in the order they were created so you can see how the faces evolved from the alien-like images into mask-like forms. When I got to the twenty-third image I thought I was done with them, incorporated the text "the end" into the design, and put my sketch pad and pens away. But after a couple of weeks, they were calling me back. Maybe the images have a spirit of their own that is guiding me to produce more of them for my healing to be complete, so number 24 represents the beginning after "the end." I've haven’t commented on any of the images in the captions because you’re probably better off interpreting them for yourself. 





  1. Beautiful Artwork!!!

  2. very interesting, especially the inspiration, i have a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer and I've been learning a lot about cells lately, so this is intriguing to say the least.

  3. Extraordinary, Gerry. My mother had a friend who collected owl figurines. This reminds me of walking through her tiny, owl-filled house in the Berkshires, an unforgettable, somewhat scary, but ultimately inspiring experience for my then-eight-year-old self. I now look at all owls as old friends.

  4. Thank you for the link to your blog. I just completed chemo for a recurrence of ovarian cancer. I have had chemo for 14 out of the last 22 months. and the art-making helps tremendously. I am lucky to be an art therapist. Lucky to be able to continue working and making art. And after all the torture, lucky and glad to still be here. I'm glad to see you continue to make art through it all.

  5. Hi Susan,
    I read a few entries on your blog and listened to your Little Window in Time; sounds like you’ve also been through quite an ordeal. It’s certainly been the most difficult year of my life. I’m not a religious person and consider myself an agnostic but down deep I sense that something continues after out bodily death. There is so much anecdotal information about Near Death Experiences and especially reincarnation (Dr. Ian Stephenson’s book titled 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation is an incredible piece of research by a noted scientist and medical doctor and was quite an eye opener for me). These are both topics that I’ve researched extensively over the years and they have help me lose my fear of death; that alone has helped a great deal in sustaining me through my ordeal. My wife and I are both health conscious; I was a runner for many years, did martial arts for close to 30 years and have been doing yoga for the past fifteen. We eat a diet comprised mostly of whole, organically raised foods yet I still got cancer. Everyone has a theory about what triggers it but no one seems to know for sure. I wish you all the best in you battle with this. I just finished reading a great book that was recommended to me by a friend who just completed chemo and I wish I had read this before I started my treatments but it’s still very useful after the fact. Title: Anti-Cancer – a new way of life by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber. It’s loaded with tons of practical information, well researched and he cites hundreds of medical and scientific studies to back up his recommendations. The premise is that our diet, lifestyle and mental attitude all affect our survivability. Servan-Schreiber had a cancerous lesion in his brain; he went through the traditional chemo and radiation therapy for his cancer and had a serious relapse several years later. After another round of treatment he began researching what he could do to help boost his body’s natural capacity for protection. He learned what foods actively helped fight tumors and which ones promoted their growth and reports on the leading edge research that helps boost our body’s immune system. Also covered are how psychological wounds can help feed our cancers and much much more. The goal is to place ourselves as far out on the survivability curve as possible. It’s an inspiring book and I highly recommend it. The best to you and your family. Stay strong and positive. Chemo was a terrible time but things can get better afterwards.

  6. Just beautiful work, Gerry. When my brother Anthony was dying from AIDS, his art took a turn and the whole vision and perspective was new. These works impress me deeply. Some feel like entities from another place. Others feel like self-portraits that are disembodied and symbolic of a process that only the maker can understand. I'm glad you are doing better. Your work inspires. I always visit your fb page when I need a boost . . .

  7. Thank you Anonymous. I'm sadden to hear about your brother and wish you all the best on your own path in life.


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