Living through Survivorship At the end of cancer treatment, patients get creative

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When cancer patients reach the end of their treatment, they often receive what can be surprising news, especially after months of intense medical involvement — they don’t have to see their doctors again for six months. “They say, ‘What? Six months? I just went from seeing six different people to no one at all,’” says Dr. Michael Schultz, a breast cancer specialist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

At this point, they have officially entered the survivorship period, that time immediately after completing treatment when they are attempting to return to their daily routines. Patients have to focus on regaining strength and even happiness after cancer, but this can be such a time of turmoil; some patients may even experience a recurrence of their cancer.

“Although we say that they are cured, they still suffer from fatigue issues, biopsychosocial issues, muscle-mass loss and a variety of other problems,” Schultz says. “Healing is about mind, body and spirit, every component of life — anything that gives them that extra little boost, anything that makes them feel better.”

Patients are encouraged to join support groups or engage in activities that provide relaxation. Many patients walk, keep journals or get massages and acupuncture to relieve stress. One of Schultz’s patients, Claudia Tordini, writes and uses art as her method of healing and renewal.

The former Baltimore and current Arlington, Virginia resident received her breast cancer diagnosis in March 2013. After much deliberation and research, she underwent a unilateral mastectomy two months later. Surrounded by a whirlwind of emotions, Tordini searched for an outlet — something to provide stability during an extraordinarily stressful period. Encouraged by her lifelong passion for art and creativity, she found that mixed-media artwork and writing were the perfect ways to express the emotional, spiritual and physical changes that she was experiencing.

“You need to face emotions, express them and then reflect on them. That’s the process that helped me,” Tordini says.

Her artwork consists of bright colors, fabrics, stones, glass and paper, which helped her draw attention away from the negativity of the situation and focus on learning how to empathize and find comfort with her body. She creates each piece in one sitting and writes while she paints. Writing, she says, helps her to reflect and experience realizations about her emotions.

In “Learning to Love my New Body, June 2013,” she cut and stitched one of her old blouses. She explained that cutting the shirt symbolized her mastectomy and helped her come to terms with the surgery. The work made her feel hopeful.

“I wanted to focus on all of the skills that I still had. I wanted to enjoy life,” she says. “I suddenly realized that there was beauty inside me — that there were colors inside me. Cancer did not kill my creativity.”

For Tordini, having a mastectomy felt like an attack on her femininity, and using pink colors, jewels, pearls and other classically feminine accessories helped her separate the loss of one of her breasts from the destruction of her sense of self. Playing with pink shades, feathers and beads helped Tordini regain strength in herself as a survivor and a powerful woman.

“I devoted a significant amount of time to my breasts, my relationship to my breasts and the meaning of the breast to women” Tordini says.

For many patients, the therapeutic healing process during survivorship is very personal and often is never shared with friends or family. Despite the sensitivity of Tordini’s situation, she decided to share her work with others. “It was a way to communicate and show people what I had been through,” Tordini says. “I wanted to show people that there is life within you, even if you go through cancer or go through the darkness.”

“To Honor my Left Breast, April 2013” was created immediately before her mastectomy and is on display at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Cancer Center. A favorite among the nurses, doctors, patients and Tordini herself, the piece was created to help her accept the mastectomy and come to terms with the reality of the situation.

“It is a piece of me. I would never give this piece away. It’s the most personal piece I have created,” she says.

Another Cancer Center piece honors and thanks Schultz. Across the canvas, “Curing cancer and healing woman’s hearts” is hand-painted in bright lettering. Tordini’s art also has been on display in the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower in Baltimore and at the Lutheran Center in the Inner Harbor. She also has held occasional art workshops for survivors at Nueva Vida, a metro-area cancer support group for Latino families. The benefits Tordini has experienced since she started creating art and sharing it with others has encouraged her to integrate art into her coaching and consulting business.

And, the University of Maryland St. Joseph Cancer Center has plans to use space on the third floor for a new and more comprehensive survivorship program that focuses on the needs of women who have been through cancer therapies. Schultz hopes the program can provide other patients with some of the same benefits that Tordini has experienced. With grant funding, the center will focus on integrative healing techniques such as meditation, nutrition and massage.

Tordini did not expect art to become such a large part of her life, but she is grateful for the comfort she has found in it. She credits her creations with carrying her through her diagnosis and treatment and into survivorship.

“I learned to grasp life in a different way— not by fear, but by enjoyment,” she says.

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