It was a breezy April evening, and I happened to get a ticket from a co-worker to an event called “Brushes with Cancer” that started right after work. Without having any idea what to expect, I walked the six blocks or so to the event. It had been 10 years since my first cancer diagnosis and only a couple months since a recurrence scare. In addition to being a cancer survivor myself, my grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer a few years after my experience, and she passed away only 10 months later. I was eager to be connected within the cancer community.
As I observed the event throughout the evening, my heart was touched and I remember thinking, “What is this? This artwork is so amazing. How did they do all this?” as I walked around the venue reading the stories next to each work of art and each individual story. I asked one of the artists who was responsible for all this and he pointed me in the direction of Jenna. When I found a moment to introduce myself to her, I jokingly said, “My name is August, I am a cancer survivor, and we are going to be friends!” and she very graciously laughed and agreed to have coffee with me soon.
We sat down over coffee and shared pieces of our stories and I asked, “How can I be involved?” The poignancy of this program, creating beauty from pain using art, touched my soul on a deeper level than I was even able to express at that time. This was what I had been looking for within the cancer community; a way to be involved in something personal, something creative, something with a healing quality. Jenna talked to me about her vision for the organization and I couldn’t have been more excited. I called a friend as I walked through the city back towards my apartment: “My life has just been changed, I know it.” I told her.
Over the next two years, I told everyone I knew about Twist Out Cancer. I began recruiting my closest friends, family and even acquaintances to be involved with the Brushes with Cancer program. And then, one day after a phone call, Jenna suggested I participate as an Inspiration in the 2014 Brushes program.
After being accepted and receiving my artist match, I was nervous. As we exchanged emails, I knew I would have to dig deep and talk about things that I hadn’t talked about for a long time. But I was also excited to have the opportunity to share my journey with someone who would then create something beautiful from it.
My artist and I met for coffee on a Sunday evening just before Thanksgiving and he was engaging and interested in knowing every piece of my story. We spent 5 hours together sharing pieces of ourselves and I found a liberty in being able to talk about some of the things I was unable to share with my loved ones when I was going through my diagnosis. We agreed to meet weekly after that to continue getting to know each other. He shared bits of himself with me just as much as I shared with him.
With my artist, I could talk about how I thought I was going to faint when the doctor told me the biopsy results, how I felt my baby kicking in my belly while I struggled to make my way back to my car after that appointment (I was 8 months pregnant at the time of diagnosis), how I felt guilty that I didn’t have the strength to call my best friend and tell her so I sent her an email instead, and so many other things. I was able to lay out all of my journey, the fears, the struggles, and the victories, without judgment, criticism or emotional reaction. And while I shared, I could feel myself coming to terms with my own experiences.
After 4 months, the exhibition and gala was in Chicago and he had kept his art creation a secret from me. When I walked in to the event, I saw the beautiful sculpture in person for the first time – a piece he titled “The Dance”, and I wept. That experience helped me to heal in ways I wasn’t even aware that I still needed, and since then I have spent my energy on encouraging others to participate.
Having experienced cancer as a survivor and also as a caregiver, I am even more passionate about what Brushes with Cancer offers to those who choose to participate.
Since that initial experience in Brushes with Cancer, my artist and I have become partners in many ways and we now live together in Michigan. That first night when I walked into the Brushes with Cancer event, I knew my life had changed but I had no way of knowing just how much. From growth and healing through the Brushes program, to the expansion of my heart and new love, to becoming an Executive Board Member and ambassador of Twist Out Cancer and the Brushes with Cancer program, my life has been altered in the best possible ways because of this experience.
What the Brushes with Cancer program offers is a chance to express pieces of your journey with cancer that may be unexpressed or unfelt. It offers a chance to connect with a stranger and realize that we are all so much more similar than we are different. It offers a chance to see that from so much pain, beauty can still grow. And it offers a chance to be part of a strong and supportive community of people who understand what you’ve been through. Sometimes it seems like we are all so divided these days, and this gives people a chance to be vulnerable together, see another human for their experiences and who they are instead of assuming we already know, and then, after all of that, it gives each pair a chance to look at the dark experience through new eyes with a new light and pull from it the threads of beauty and strength that will be added to the tapestry of the life of everyone who interacts with them.