Posted by: jeanne | February 16, 2009

How My Art Has Helped Me Deal With My Cancer

i’m applying for a grant from an organization that supports women artists with cancer. you might think that there would be many organizations supporting cancer patients. but alas, most grants are given to cancer research, which is a misnomer, because most of the grants go to encouraging women to take mamograms, which basically supports the cancer industry, not cancer victims. but so it goes. it’s always organizations that get money, rather than individuals who actually need the help.

this application requires an essay about how art has helped me deal with cancer. it’s a topic i have often thought about before, because actually having cancer has changed my attitude toward art. so i thought perhaps somebody might find this train of thought useful. here it is.

There is a link between art and healing. Making art stills and focuses the mind, channels the energies, gives an outlet for all sorts of emotions, positive and negative. In that way, I have used art to help me work thru the fears and anger associated with losing a breast and expecting to die early. If I hadn’t had my art to sustain me, I would have succumbed to depression and hopelessness in the first year following my diagnosis.


Internally, my art is a wonderful way of taking my mind off of my worries. Instead of focusing on every twinge of pain and fearing it means the cancer is coming back, I can ignore the twinges and throw myself into my work.


Externally, I frequently teach an art class at a community center, which lets me focus on encouraging others to use art to work on whatever problems they have. My classes are less about learning techniques and more about exploring human expression and bringing out the artist inside of everyone.


When I had a day job, putting all my effort into someone else’s goals in exchange for money, I was angry, depressed, self destructive. Now, by focusing on making art instead of making money, I have found wholeness, healing, a positive attitude, and the means to leave a tangible legacy, something that expresses who I am and what I have to say.


An aside: I found that writing about the specified topic was rather too easy. Everybody knows that art helps the healing process, gets you in touch with your unconscious, enables you to deal with the painful subjects everyone chooses to avoid. Suspicious that this was too trite and unthinking an answer, I changed the wording of the sentence around, and found a much richer topic.


How My Cancer Has Helped Me Deal With My Art


Before I got cancer, I made pretty pictures. Landscapes, still lives, interiors. I didn’t think I had anything to say. I didn’t think there was any rush. I didn’t think my art was important, since I never went to art school and didn’t have gallery representation other than a few gift shops. People at the art festivals where I sold my paintings liked my work, but what did they know? I had already dismissed myself as a dilettante.


However, once I got cancer, everything changed. I decided that making art was the most important thing I could do, sold all my things, and embarked upon a year and a half of art residencies, where I painted and wrote everything I had in me. I worked with all sorts of conflicts, emotions, new understandings and awakenings.


As I worked thru the process of grieving and getting on with what remained of my life, I found that my art became political. Suddenly I had plenty to say, about women, about cancer, about the cancer industry, about society, about the purpose and meaning of life. Being soon to die gave my thoughts urgency and importance. I began to envision simple and complex statements about having cancer, being a woman, being a mother and a daughter, being a human, about living and dying. It took me several years to work up the courage to make art about having cancer, but my feelings got stronger, and eventually the idea of making pretty pictures became irrelevant as the need to say something became overwhelming. Now I can hardly work fast enough to keep up with the art I plan to shove in peoples’ faces. I’m becoming a real pain in the ass. That’s a good goal for an artist who’s tired of painting pretty pictures.


I gave up a breast in my fight against cancer. Pressured to undergo reconstructive surgery, I found myself asking how I as an artist should handle it. Should I hide my scars and pretend that nothing ever happened? Should I paint pretty pictures of my life and never let on that I was suffering inside? My reaction was a very strong, instinctive unwillingness to disguise myself. I embarked on the sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing practice of going out in public with one breast, displaying my mutilation, inviting notice, asking for dialog, demanding that people not only accept me as I am, but feel the fears inside of themselves and acknowledge what they would prefer to ignore. In doing so, I have become a performance artist, displaying my deformity in order to shock people out of their comfortable, willful ignorance.


Having cancer, I find that my priorities have changed completely. If I’m going to die sooner rather than later, I see no reason to continue trading my energy and efforts for a paycheck, wasting my time and energy, and life, on someone else’s goals. Since time is short and my energy precious, I have focused all my effort to the important things – myself, my family, and my art. In doing so, I have become remarkably clear in my emotions, highly focused on life, and intent upon saying everything I’m uniquely qualified to say while there are people to hear it.


I thank you for asking the question. Our society gives us little opportunity to talk about the important things. Death embarrasses us, infirmity makes us uneasy, disease frightens us. In asking the question, you have given me an opportunity to think about things we have been encouraged not to think about, to focus on the purpose and meaning of my life, and to reflect on the statement that cancer has turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. This is a statement that flummoxes many friends. How can cancer be a good thing, they wonder, do I have a death wish? But no, I have a life wish. Because I have cancer, I no longer waste my time. I no longer enjoy the luxury of depression and lassitude. I no longer tolerate toxic people, emotions, situations. I have faced death, accepted it, and become ruthless in doing what is best for me. If I’d never gotten cancer, I’d still be wasting my time. As it is, I enjoy every day for itself, I work at my art constantly, and I love myself and my family with a tenderness I had no time for when I was focused on how far short my life came of my dreams of perfection.


I live to make art, and make art to live.



  1. I am not exagerrating one little bit here. This is absolutely phenomenal.

    You did a great job. It is riveting and true. I especially liked the line about being focused on how far short your life was from perfect.

    Jeanne this in excellent.

    My fingers are crossed but I really don’t think you need that.

    Love Renee

  2. Jeanne how are you feeling dear friend?

    I think of you often and always hope that you are doing well.

    Love Renee xoxoox

  3. i’m doing well, renee, working hard. loved the cd you sent, and everyone around me thought the book was an inspiration. hope you’re enjoying the spring with all your might. love jeanne

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