This piece was published in a shortened form in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, October 30, 2018.
“Strength: An Exhibition of Inspirational Art and Writing” at the Mistlin Fine Art Gallery puts on display the potential of post-traumatic growth in Modesto. It comes to display through the Complementary Therapies Program at Memorial Medical Center, a program designed to support cancer survivors and their caregivers.
The program, beginning in 2006 under the direction of Dr. David Adkins, is open any cancer survivors and caregivers of cancer patients regardless of health insurance or hospital affiliation. It offers classes in art, photography, writing, gardening, movement, music, and strength-and-fitness to complement medical treatment for cancer, not replace it. These classes seek to serve and support the emotional and psychological well-being of patients helping them turn a life-threatening potentially debilitating experience into one full of potential, to grow and seize life. They become more than survivors, they are “thrivers.”
In 2004 Memorial Hospital Foundation provided the funds to develop the program. At the time, no one knew entirely what “Complementary therapies” meant. To some, it sounded suspicious, in line with treating a physical condition by purely spiritual or new age means. After offering monthly introductory classes for a year and a half, the class subjects were chosen and from the beginning have been a tremendous success, explained Cheryl Casey, Coordinator of Community Outreach for Memorial Medical Center, Cancer Services.
Dr. Adkins described it, “Art was one of those that took off right from the beginning…You see in the gallery some results, phenomenal artwork. Every piece speaks to the emotions and the process these patients have gone through expressed how they feel helps time to get their word out.”
Much of the program’s strength comes from creating or working in a room surrounded by those connected with the shared and unique experience of cancer. Casey explained, “it offers the freedom to talk about it or not to talk about it. It’s not a support group.”
The hospital partnered with California State University Stanislaus to study the outcomes of the program. They found, through surveys and in-depth interviews, an overall positive outcome defined as patients feeling better, less pain, discomfort, and stress. While positive for patients, they found caregivers were even more dramatically positively affected.
When asked why Dr. Adkins described caregivers as the “unsung heroes” in cancer treatment, taking on the emotional trauma and stress in caring for a loved one in cancer but without support or recognition.
Each program carries a life of its own and is run according to the number of classes contracted with the facilitator and the group’s needs. Casey described “strength-and-fitness is almost like their next step after they get out of therapy.”
The gardening class is currently preparing to plant daffodils, which they will plant and distribute to patients in the spring. There are patients and caregivers who stay with one class and others who sign up for as many as they can. “They’re so overwhelmed by their diagnosis they just need to lose themselves in something, It’s just such a great distraction, something to focus on, something else gets your mind in a better place. It’s hard to heal when you’re anxious or depressed or lonely.”
The group of facilitators grew organically from personal recommendations. Casey said, “Dr. Adkins didn’t care what was after their name (if they had a degree). It was all about the person and being able to trust them with our patients…like we would run these if we ran them ourselves.”
Galen Martin, who lives in Waterford, has facilitated the art group for seven years after the former facilitator moved out of the area. Her family owned Artel Art Supplies and helped provide art tools and supplies discounted or donated for the Complementary Therapies Program. As a facilitator, her goal is to “Facilitate a safe environment for people to be creative and express themselves through some type of art medium or artistic means in ways that other ways say talk or other means doesn’t allow.”
She wants to “Let them be in charge of their healing and in charge of their process and their journey through their treatment, their caregiving…helping them again be in a place where they feel safe and explore the meaning of what they’re going through…reaching it on their own. I’m not the one who gets them there. I help get them started.”
The art class differs from art therapy which works one-on-one with a patient to help them peel back the layers through unstructured art. Instead, Martin teaches her students techniques, learns what their hopes are and guides them in the direction they want to go.
New artists have the option to join a class for beginners. That beginners class created the painting of a lotus flower, made of 42 individuals squares, which will be hung in the oncology unit at the hospital along with other group projects from the show.
Martin is currently pursuing a Masters in Psychology and Counseling Techniques. She sees symbolism as a powerful way for patients to process their emotions through their art. “The lotus flower thrives off of dark murky waters that you wouldn’t think would grow out of that, pull sits strength out of dark murky waters and blossoms into something beautiful and pristine.”
Throughout the exhibit, patients and caregivers answer the question, “Where does my strength come from?”
“I’ve seen the necessity and in my studies, I’ve realized this is something that is missing for not just art, Complementary Therapies in general. Community interaction and involvement is a huge part of the healing process,” Martin said.
“I have seen people come out of a lot of really intense moments in life just from being in the program. ‘The program has saved their lives.’ It seems overreaching but I just asked the person, why is that? What is it that made that happen for you? Everyone has a different reason. It’s not the same. It’s touched people in different ways. For one person, it is the art, the art has saved them, the fact they could focus on something other than what they were going through.”
Her classes are filled with 25-30 students each week and she sees up to 80 people come through the program throughout the year.
After four years of battling cancer, Carrie Esau is cancer free. The Complementary Therapies Program has offered to her life something she never imagined possible, gratitude for the experience of cancer. Acknowledging such a sentiment must sound mad to someone on the outside, she explains what the program did for her. Esau, who lives in the Hughson-Denair area, began with the photography class. “It was a boost to my morale when I was asked to submit some pictures to be framed and hung in the Mistlin Art Gallery in Modesto. I was thrilled then to participate in a reception where there was a band and refreshments, friends and family. The experience was exciting challenging, opening her up to something she never would have participated in. Esau described the reception and experience as “glamorous.”
After that, she decided to try the writing class. “Write a letter to cancer” was the first exercise. “When I look back it was very pregnant and full of all kinds of emotion, the fear, the anger all of the uncertainties.” What could she say? “I’d hiked Half Dome the year before diagnosis, had gone skydiving on my birthday two months before diagnosis. There was shock, anger, fear.”
Three years later, she tried the class again, forgetting what the first night was. In her letter to cancer that time, she found she had “a whole different attitude because of all these positive things that had been going on.”
“The way I would sum up everyone there was a cancer survivor, we didn’t need to talk about health or treatments or how we felt there was an instant understanding, a camaraderie, even if we feel lousy we were still comfortable in those settings…For me it was a place I didn’t have to go get poked looked at no chemo no lab it wasn’t sterile, it was colorful it was expanding my horizons, I was developing some new interest new skills things I hated the cancer but I feel like for me personally, these were some new doors that, even though its Sutter Gould put on, those were things God opened to me to help me realize my life wasn’t just cancer. My life wasn’t over.”
Esau continues to participate. Her work is published in an anthology titled, “Time to Heal,” and her photographs have been used as promotional materials for Harvest of Hope.
“Strength” will be on display at Mistlin Fine Art Gallery in Modesto until November 9. It is made possible by a grant from Memorial Medical Center to the Central California Art Association.