How one woman discovers hope and healing on her brave journey through cancer

Every woman remembers where they were when they received the call from the doctor.

I was in the kitchen. I was looking out the window when he called and I just collapsed in the chair. My first thought was how am I going to tell my kids? I was more worried about my family handling cancer than me; my girls were 15 and 19.

I was diagnosed with stage II Ductal Carcinoma—in other words, breast cancer—on July 27, 2007. After a great deal of consultation and deliberation, I had a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and reconstruction. It was a whirlwind of information, doctor visits, questions, and fear of the unknown.

I remember vividly the fear of losing my hair and the fear of losing my womanhood—my breasts. Women diagnosed with breast cancer sometimes seem more concerned with losing their hair and breasts than their treatment and survival. That is understandable considering how important a woman’s looks are to her and the fear of never looking the same. But I’ve learned that when you lose a part of yourself, more of yourself is revealed and exposed.

Healing Through Art

After finishing chemotherapy, I felt a need to help people who were going through the same thing. I wanted to assure them that they could get through it. I volunteered at Texas Oncology in Plano and helped by bringing survivors snacks, talking and listening to them, and helping them try on wigs.

My sister was the one that pushed me to put my story on paper and eventually, canvas. So, I began drawing my thoughts on these 5” x 5” cards and when I was feeling good, I would start to paint the canvas. One day, at a support group at Texas Oncology called “How Did You Get Through Chemo?” I brought my journal and half-painted canvas and talked about how my art was part of my journey. A woman in the group enthusiastically said, “I want to do that, too! You should teach a class.”

EEEEK! Panic! I knew nothing about teaching, and I am not a professional artist, but I asked my business partner, Betty Bryan from Redo! Design, to help and next thing I knew, Mary Fitzgerald at Texas Oncology asked me to teach an art class and we developed the logo, Healing Through Art. It has developed into a five-week class in the spring, scheduled once a week, for cancer survivors or caretakers. The resulting art is displayed in the waiting room at Texas Oncology.

In the class, we cry, we laugh, we share. Sometimes it’s hard because people are angry, but as the class proceeds, hearts and fears soften. After the five-week class, we have an art show and invite friends and family, and each student tells their story.

Everybody has a story to tell. We cannot let fear take our stories of healing, strength, love and survival.

Cancer survivors at Texas Oncology have told me how much the survivors’ art influences their decision to have chemo treatments there. One girl who told me the paintings reminded her that somebody else understood what she was going through. Cancer survivors realize they’re not alone and they feel comforted.

One young lady, who was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, told her story at the art opening two weeks before she passed away. She had been displaced from her home in New Orleans because of Katrina, and she didn’t have any family here. She was struggling with nausea and didn’t have the strength to attend every class, so I would go to her apartment and we would make art. I was with her the night before she passed away. She weighed only about 60 pounds and was barely able to speak. I asked her if she knew where she was going, and she said, “Yes.” Then I asked her if she was afraid and she said, “No.” I just laid with her in her hospital bed holding her hand.

When she died, we held a memorial for her at my church, Crosspointe. When I spoke with her mom she told me they couldn’t afford to take her back home, so during the memorial we raised the money to have her cremated so her family could bring her back to New Orleans. That experience really touched my heart; people’s kindness and love.

The day that you find out you have cancer—from that day—you are a survivor. I have been a survivor for eight years. I’ve wondered why I had cancer and how I ended up teaching art, and I realized I may never know the whys and hows, but I do understand that God used all those circumstances to grow compassion in my heart for bigger purposes. He just keeps nudging me to tell my story.

If you are willing to step out in faith and write your own story, you have to remember someone is waiting to hear your words of encouragement. So tell it and keep connecting our cancer paths. Somebody is in the same place that you are or once were. That’s how we connect—coming through it, sharing and loving.

Healing Through Art – feedback from fellow cancer survivors

“Like most cancer patients, I just wanted life to be normal and if jumping one hurdle after another got me closer to that goal, then that’s what I did and never looked back. This class made me look back through my journey thus far. Boy, am I glad I did! I didn’t anticipate having to be so introspective, and it was hard to unlock some of the feelings that I’ve been running from since my diagnosis. Looking back helped me realize how far I’ve come and how blessed I am.”—Diane

“Wow what a great evening! How do I begin to even describe how it was…we have all come a long way and what an inspiration we are to others. I am so proud to be a part of the Cancer Babes, Texas Oncology and the sixth class of Healing through Art.”—Michele

“In my 35 years of being an oncology nurse, it has been the most rewarding job. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I take care of you, I just do the best I can do, trying very hard to make each patient’s journey as easy as possible. When I hear them and see their artwork, I am humbled and hopefully a better nurse for it.”—Mary Fitzgerald, RN, OCN and Research Nurse Coordinator at Texas Oncology Plano East.

The words on top are what I was feeling when I started this process. The bottom words are what supported me and finally got me to a place of being grateful for cancer. My journey taught me how to be still, appreciate what I have, love those around me, be patient, and be present for others. I also wanted to leave this painting to my daughters, Natalie and Darcy, as a legacy of my journey through cancer.