Artwork empowers St. Joseph's breast care patients

The imagery and messages are powerful, and even more compelling when you know the artists.  They are cancer survivors, a caregiver and someone living with cancer, and they are reaching out through art to those just starting out on the cancer journey.

"Through this art, I hope that people can find that strong place within them that isn't touched by what they are going through, just as I did in creating it," says Alison Brown, artist and throat cancer survivor.

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Watch the above art therapy video on youtube.

The art hangs in a waiting room of the Norton and Lucille Wolf Breast Care Centre at St. Joseph's Hospital. Empowering patients with messages of courage, strength, peace and hope intricately conveyed on colourful panels, the artwork appears like stained glass where patients wait for their tests.  The artists are participants in the art therapy program of Wellspring London and Region, which partnered with St. Joseph's to create the set of four panels. 

"Each panel is like a visual sound clip of who they are and what they hope for everyone else who is going through this journey," explains Wellspring art therapist Wanda Sawicki of the four artists.  

artists and staff pose beside new art therapy panels at St. Joseph's Breast Care Centre

For Alison, art therapy helped her uncover "hope and joy that hadn't been touched by the cancer."  When the opportunity arose to create a piece for the Breast Care Centre, she didn't hesitate. 

"I know what it's like to be waiting for tests, waiting for results, the anxiety you feel," says Alison. In the medical environment of the centre, she hopes the art will be "a moment of beauty, a moment of hope, a moment of inspiration. I'm proud to give a gift like this."

Alison's best friend and caregiver, Carolyn Hill, is also among the four artists. "I am so pleased that the paintings on display may offer some distraction or some opportunity for curiosity, and some evidence of the touch of the human hand and heart: an opening to some of the spirit that is Wellspring. I wanted to share that community of spirit."

For Sheryl McTavish, the gift of art to St. Joseph's is a way of giving back for the support she has received through Wellspring while undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. "I was so excited to be doing this for the Breast Care Centre. My mom had breast cancer, and I have the BRCA2 gene," explains Sheryl who had a double mastectomy and her ovaries removed five years ago as a preventive measure. Incredibly, cervical cancer was discovered last year when she decided to also have a preventative hysterectomy.

All four artists are thrilled to have their art hang at St. Joseph's, but Lin-Pei De Souza has a special connection to the hospital. While pregnant and due to deliver at St. Joseph's, she experienced headaches and other symptoms she thought were related to the pregnancy. When she became very ill and incoherent, a brain tumour the size of an orange was discovered. She needed immediate surgery at University Hospital. She also needed to deliver her baby. A perinatal team from St. Joseph's travelled to University Hospital and delivered the infant by caesarean section in the operating room, which was immediately followed by brain surgery. Lin-Pei's little girl is now almost three years old.

In a dedication ceremony of the art, St. Joseph's chaplain Margaret Vanderheyden thanked the artists for their "offerings of healing".

"We dedicate these paintings, your work, as an inspiration to all those who may visit this Breast Care Centre, those whose mind, body and spirit may be touched by the mystery and depth of what you have captured emotionally, spiritually, and by the meaning of this piece of art in your life."

Wellspring, which offers a wide range of cancer support programs and services, and St. Joseph's have enjoyed a long-time partnership to meet the needs of people facing cancer, explains Gillian Milcz, a nurse navigator with St. Joseph's Breast Care Program. "Wellspring is an important resource in the community for our patients and we continually explore ways both organizations can work together."

The artwork is the second set of panels created by Wellspring art therapy participants. The first set was initially installed in the Diagnostic Imaging Centre then moved to the Breast Care Centre when it opened in 2012. At the official opening, Wanda, Gillian and Wellspring program director Daniel Lockwood saw an opportunity to add to the collection, which has received much positive feedback from patients.

"Wellspring is all about partnerships and ensuring people know about resources available to them," says Daniel. "People feel more secure in their care when they know organizations are working together and we are delighted to work closely with St. Joseph's in various ways."

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