The Art of Survival

When 70-year-old Jeanette Tersigni went into remission from multiple myeloma, a chronic but incurable cancer of the white blood cells, she thought, “I did it!” But it wasn’t long until she realized she was always “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“People who knew I had blood cancer expected me to look a certain way, but I didn’t look emaciated,” says Jeanette, a soft-spoken grandmother of seven. “I looked fine. What my family and friends couldn’t see was the isolation and anxiety I felt on the inside.”

A mere 10 years ago, the word cancer often alluded to a death sentence. Research breakthroughs, innovative treatments, and better early detection methods have made it possible for more and more men and women to survive cancer. Whereas only three million people with a cancer history were alive in 1971, the population of survivors now approaches 12 million—approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Cancer Institute. Currently, the overall five-year relative survival rate for all cancers combined is 67 percent. Cancer may not always be entirely vanquished, but it is increasingly becoming a chronic disease rather than a fatal one.

Cancer survivors often must cope with physical, emotional, psychological, and financial problems during remission—including depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, and short-term memory loss associated with cancer and its treatment (commonly known as “chemobrain”). Survivors describe it as a general sense of not feeling like oneself. These various issues, however, often go unchecked.

“There is a significant subset of patients who are not fully healed when they go home, but because they look reasonably healthy or healthier than they used to, their family and friends think they are back to normal,” explains Arash Asher, MD. “But cancer survivors have to face many residual issues. Even if you are disease free, it doesn’t mean you’re free of your disease.” Dr. Asher is director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

He spearheaded the program in 2008, the first systematic and sustained effort of its kind at Cedars- Sinai. His own trailblazing efforts prompted him to veer from studying physical medicine and rehabilitation to designing his own training path with a cancer rehabilitation fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He aimed to “heal the whole cancer patient— physically and emotionally—to get them back to their highest quality of life,” he says.

Dr. Asher’s initial effort at Cedars- Sinai was to implement “Expressions of Hope and Healing,” a weekly art class for survivors taught by artist and cancer survivor Flori Hendron. Together, they implemented an eight-week program to help survivors heal through artistic expression.

“Many patients struggle to find meaning in their experience and grapple with their new identity as survivors,” says Flori. The course structure aims to facilitate a reflection process based on Joseph Campbell’s 1949 influential best-seller, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Flori explains, “We use the Hero’s Journey to move through different steps so we don’t get stuck talking about diagnosis, and we can examine getting through cancer survival in steps that cycle back into living your life.”

She is all too familiar with this process, having been a survivor herself for the past 14 years—a commonality with her students that creates an emotionally honest atmosphere, according to Dr. Asher. In the midst of her own cancer battle, Flori and the people around her thought she was close to death, but her health steadily improved when she began to paint and conquered a big mental hurdle.

“Healing is directly related to expression,” she shares. “I was scared to death of dying and worrying about it, and then I realized my process had value and I had to handle it with grace and dignity.”

She quickly found that the more time she spent painting, the less time she spent in fear. She wanted to help others come to this realization and master “the mental game of cancer.” Flori says, “I am every woman who has thrown up in the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, breast-less and bald, putting on the war paint.”

Flori’s classroom is a makeshift safe haven that’s far from clinical. Soft, uplifting music plays in the background and hot tea and fruit are available for snacking. Along the perimeters of a large table covered with various art supplies, a group of nine women, focused on the mixed media art piece of the day, drift in and out of conversation. Their dialogue seamlessly flows from adverse side effects of medications, to locating a dark green pastel, to everyday family troubles, and to who has seen what at the movies. In the center of the table, there’s a box of pastels and a box of tissues, two necessities for every session.

When Shelden Blevins began taking the class, she was in a heavy round of radiation following three surgeries and chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. She’s a woman in her mid-40s with a bright, friendly smile and calming presence. As she speaks, she brushes away the few wisps of dark hair she has remaining after her treatment.

“I actually looked forward to going to radiation on Fridays because the art class helped me through the process. It was exciting—it was like going on a date!” she says. “The people sharing their stories and the art projects all wrapped into one was like medicine to me.”

While Shelden is at the beginning of her journey as a survivor, the class boasts a tightly knit community of men and women at different points in their survivorship.

Next to Shelden sits Jeanette Tersigni, working on her tree of life piece. “My experience in the workshop surprised me,” she says. “I thought I had done what I needed to do for healing, but I realized I isolated parts of myself, and this workshop gave me an inner strength for more comprehensive healing. It was very powerful and it gave me a renewed sense of control and hope.”

Dr. Asher explains why patients are able to find meaning in their challenges through art by likening the cancer experience to an emotional abscess. “When you have gone through something as devastating as cancer, it really affects all facets of your life and brings up serious existential issues. But it’s hard for people who have cancer to honestly and fully express everything to their loved ones. When you put a group of strangers in a safe environment, they can let everything out and are guided through art and discussion. The poison must be expressed for the abscess to clear and the integrated healing process to succeed.”