Shirley Shirley remembers when a young girl saw her bald head and scolded her for not wearing a hat.
Shirley was battling breast cancer in 2009, just months after moving to Montana from Iowa. Like other cancer patients, Shirley — whose first name is the same as her last — wore wigs and hats to hide her hairlessness during chemotherapy. But one winter day when she and her daughter Diane were skiing at Riverfront Park, Diane said, “Take off your hat, Mom. We need a picture.”
That photograph now graces the cover of Shirley’s memoir, “My Journey: Reflections on Life from a Cancer Survivor.”
It is difficult to quantify how much writing poetry helped Shirley fight cancer. But Shirley, her writing coach Dave Caserio, and others involved in arts in medicine programs believe that music, writing and the visual arts all help in the healing process.
The Billings Clinic Cancer Center sees 1,600 newly diagnosed cancer patients each year. All of those patients and their families have the opportunity to participate in free healing-arts programs at the hospital.
In 2012, the Billings Clinic Cancer Center received a $15,000 LIVESTRONG Community Impact grant to fund its Artist in Residence Program. The grant helped pay salaries for two visual artists, Brooke Atherton and Mur Quaglia, who spent the last year making art with cancer patients and their family members. Seven large panels displaying that artwork will soon be hung at Billings Clinic.
Looking at the tiles painted by patients brings tears to Atherton’s eyes because she recalls the intensity of those experiences working with patients whose lives were derailed by cancer.
“Their lives had changed overnight. This was one area they could control,’’ Atherton said. “I found a lot of patients from the minute they found out they have cancer, they’re treated differently. For 15 minutes of making art, they could forget.”
Quaglia adds, “We weren’t there to critique or judge. And sometimes just looking at art with patients was enough.”
Some patients depicted cancer cells, woven into intricate, colorful designs. Quaglia, herself a cancer survivor, encouraged patients to paint cancer cells being destroyed.
During one bedside session with a patient who was too weak to paint, Quaglia helped her visualize a happier moment by showing her a Van Gogh painting.
"She began talking about a castle she visited and that brought back good memories. Art takes them away from a place of fear and that can be very important," Quaglia said.
Amber Ussin-Davey, a counselor at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center, said the area of whole-person wellness in health care is growing fast. Billings artist Jane Deschner initially helped Davey establish a healing-arts program at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center.
“Anything that introduces resources to provide spiritual and mental health to go along with the biological treatment helps meet the needs of the whole person,” Davey said.
When patients receive a cancer diagnosis, their lives are in upheaval. Shirley chronicled that feeling of helplessness in her poem, “Teeter Totter” when she wrote, “Back to normal I hope to go/but it will never be the same. How will the new normal look?”
Davey said creativity not only helps build a stronger healing environment, but it aids patients in finding the new norm.
“Cancer is not a death sentence, but a chronic illness. The question is, ‘How do I develop a new normal?’ A lot of patients find that their old ways aren’t going to work. Maybe they aren’t going to be the marathon runner they were. Then there’s the question, ‘What do I do with these heavy emotions?’ ”
Caserio has been helping patients deal with that inner turmoil by writing about it through workshops offered to cancer patients, cancer survivors or anyone who has been affected by cancer.
“No doctor is going to tell you, ‘Take two sonnets and it will heal your broken arm,’ ” Caserio said. “But writing or even reading poetry allows you to process your experience. Once you process it, you have knowledge which gives you control and helps you accept what is happening so you can fight against it.”
Caserio first began working with stroke victims and other patients in 1986 at Goldwater Coler Memorial Hospital in New York City. After moving to Montana, Caserio began working with the Billings Clinic Cancer Center in 2009. He has taken patients on field trips to the Audubon Conservation Education Center and other natural areas around Billings to inspire them to write.
“Writing is an emotional release. It’s cathartic,” Caserio said.
Caserio’s father and grandmother died of cancer and his brother is a cancer survivor. There was a time when he wasn’t even allowed to say the word out loud.
“My grandmother wouldn’t even say the word "cancer." She believed you should suffer in silence.”
Caserio said the first thing cancer takes away is a person’s dignity, then his sense of identity.
“Somehow, writing can help you get that back,” Caserio said.
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