Deep feelings color art created by cancer patients


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"Four years went by no cancer.

This is great I will make it five years

Cancer free. But it did not happen I

Couldn't believe it when they told me

It came back why me what did I do wrong?..."

"The Cancer Returns," written by cancer patient Jodi Stebler, 43, of Troy Hill, is a free-form poem that describes one of her art works, a red and black collage depicting an abstract landscape. It will be displayed along with the work of other local cancer patients and relatives of cancer patients in a one-day show in the lobby of the Allegheny Cancer Center at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

It is hard to decide which part of Ms. Stebler's poem is more moving: The angry red peaks and tiny sun of the collage or the prose about them.

"...The red is the rage I felt the black is the

overwhelming fear and sadness I felt.

The blue glitter is the millions of tears I shed.

The green is how sick I felt from chemo. ..."

Ms. Stebler, who just began painting in June in order to contribute something to the show, has come to love the art form, but she says both it and the writing have been cathartic.

"When you write stuff or paint, it helps to get it out," said Ms. Stebler. She was diagnosed in 2004 with neck cancer, which was found to have moved into her right hip last year.

When painting, she said, "I get a release. I put the anger and frustration on something else. ... I can get my feelings out and don't feel like I'm bothering my family and friends. I have a really good support system, but this helps a lot."

Doctors and cancer counselors encourage artistic expression for just that reason.

At the Bloomfield-based nonprofit Cancer Caring Center, personnel lead "socially interactive programs that have an art project as part of the process," said Bonnie Shields, director of support services.

"For example, our Live Well with Cancer series has Angel Silks, a three-part series where we gather people together to do silk screening. ...

"I think it's therapeutic in a sense, just like a support group would be -- people have the opportunity to express in a nonverbal way things that are bothering them. It's a coping mechanism, a means to reduce stress, a wonderful distraction," Ms. Shields added.

Dr. Betsy Blazek-O'Neill, director of the Integrated Medicine Program at Allegheny General Hospital, is a firm believer in the benefits of art for cancer patients. Her program combines conventional and complementary therapies like acupuncture, relaxation techniques, Reiki and even pet therapy for an integrated approach to healing the mind and spirit, as well as the body.

"Cancer is a very serious disease-- it requires strong medicine or serious surgery and procedures -- and that's the way it should be," Dr. Blazek-O'Neill said. "But somebody along the line needs to adjust the mind and the spirit.

"If they can express what they're going through in art, they can feel good about themselves," Dr. Blazek-O'Neill said.

"That's different than sitting in a support group or ... talking to family. It's a really great way for people to express what they're feeling and to feel good about themselves.

"Obviously when people get cancer, it's a physical problem, but they're also thinking 'Am I going to die? What happens when I die? What will my family do when I die? How is my life going to be different after cancer?' -- all the questions that are not addressed by treatment. ...

"Art is a great way to vent some of that."

And its role in life may be even greater than that, Dr. Blazek-O'Neill said.

"I truly believe creativity is a basic human need. People need to create something. ... That basic human need, to take something and make something out of it, to put your personal stamp on it, is what I think every person needs to do."

For Kate Fetterman, 68, of the Rosedale neighborhood of Penn Hills, that basic need has been filled for the past 25 years by quilting. It took on additional meaning when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the sinuses in 2007.

"I don't consider myself artistic, though that would be nice," said Mrs. Fetterman, who has a quilt hanging in the Allegheny Cancer Center show. "I love colors, fabrics and shapes. I like the feel of fabric, enjoy being creative, and if I really get into it I dream about quilts and shapes. ...

"When I was ill I would love the feel of the fabric, to look at the colors and shapes and try to make something beautiful out of what I had."

A particularly enjoyable challenge, she said, was taking an "ugly" fabric and trying to place it with other swatches in a way that would make it beautiful.

"I was trying to make sense out of my illness, weave something together, something creative, something I really didn't know how it would turn out that had some beauty," she said. "It was very therapeutic for me and not a difficult process."

Mrs. Fetterman's daughter, Cathy Kelly, 52, of Oakmont, is also a quilter with a piece in the show and also a cancer patient. She just finished courses of radiation and chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, for which she also had surgery.

Quilting also has been cathartic for her.

"It's a release for sadness for me, and it very much calms me down, calms my anxiety," she said. "Pushing a needle through the fabric has a very medicinal effect. It lowers your blood pressure. It's just an overall calming."

Ms. Stebler's poem concludes:

"... The pink is the love I felt from family and friends.

The white glitter is the hope I have that the

Cancer will never return. The yellow is the happiness

I feel that I am still here to enjoy life."

Note: The Allegheny Cancer Center will also hold head, neck and prostate cancer screenings on Saturday. Call 1-877-284-2000.


Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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