Creativity in Response to Cancer

One of the most prevalent illnesses in adulthood is cancer. Currently it is estimated that about one out of every three women and one out of every two men will develop this illness during their lifetime. Like the general population, artists get a variety of cancers but for the following individuals, the illness becomes a challenge that they face with creativity in a variety of ways. Some artists change their way of working or use the work specifically to address their emotional response to illness, while others like Vincent Desiderio (American, b. 1955) find that having been sick has strengthened them emotionally.

Desiderio, who had an aggressive type of nasal pharyngeal cancer, said that the ordeal of illness and treatment with chemotherapy and radiation was grueling but it changed him. He stated he now lives in the present moment and has developed greater internal strength because he no longer requires 'validation from outside.'

Although they had different types of cancer, Darcy Lynn, Dan Savage, and Nancy Fried used art to depict their psychological response to illness and treatment as a way to manage the stress. The images they produced were often graphic depictions of medical procedures, shunts, vomiting, and breast removal that also showed their emotional anguish. After they recovered, all three individuals who remain well today used the art they created during illness as a way to give hope to others who were sick. In 1991 when Darcy Lynn (American, b. 1956) was diagnosed with Stage IV immunoblastic lymphoma, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she documented her entire treatment through a series of paintings and drawings. After her recovery Lynn gave lectures on the role of creativity in healing to medical personnel saying, "I fought illness with the best weapon I had - my art."

Dan Savage (English, b. 1982), who was 20 years old when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer, also depicted his treatment. Creating daily images of medical procedures and his response to them, Savage said, "I accepted it and used it for inspiration." After his recovery, Savage became a public speaker to emphasize the necessity of early detection and treatment: "I show there is life after cancer." Nancy Fried (American, b. 1949) had cancer four times during the years 1986-90. She had three separate types of breast cancer and also cancer of the appendix. In response, she began making sculptures of her ordeal. She showed herself with one breast after a mastectomy, having severe burns from radiation, and depicted her agony about being sick. Her sculptures became widely known. Fried, who did not have breast reconstruction and refuses to wear a breast prosthesis, openly presents herself as a one-breasted woman saying, "By making something private public, you find you aren't the only one."

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