I have witnessed people transform through artistic expression. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and dealing with the treatment is traumatic. Creative expression is an avenue into healing.
A candid conversation with artist and two-time cancer survivor babs Mayer.
How long have you been coming to the Mass General Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital?
Almost a year.
Since you have been diagnosed, what have you learned about yourself?
As a woman and an artist who has faced-off with breast cancer twice– once in 2014 and again in 2018 – both times I went through the round of treatments: surgery, chemo, and radiation. While this experience has taught me many lessons, there is one thing that stands out that I want to share. That is, how essential creative expression was to my healing.
Why is art important to you, and how has it helped you as you have gone through treatment?
For years I have worked with people who have survived domestic violence and sexual assault. To address their trauma, I facilitated a healing arts program that I am certified in, called “A Window Between Worlds”. I am currently conducting this art program with cancer survivors. I have witnessed people transform through art expression. Receiving a cancer diagnosis and dealing with the treatment is traumatic. Creative expression is an avenue into healing.
I hope to encourage people to express what they are going through, be it through art, writing, music, or dance.
What has been your greatest struggle?
It’s really lonely getting a cancer diagnosis. I have a partner; she is very supportive. I have a friend who is a cancer survivor; she brought me to every chemo appointment.
But still, it’s totally alone. Nobody knows… I could be walking down the street. They don’t know that I have cancer and that my feet are numb or that my hands are numb. Or that I am exhausted with each step. They don’t know these things. So it’s a struggle to be in the world. Now, it’s even more of a struggle to be in the world differently because I can’t go back to the way it was. It’s like before cancer and after cancer. And after cancer, it’s not that I am doing a whole lot of things differently, but it’s a scary time for me.
I never thought I would get cancer again; even though it wasn’t a recurrence, it was a different type of cancer. Now, it will always be scary whenever I have a mammogram. I will always wonder, will I have a clean mammogram?
What has been and will always be a struggle for me is radiation, … I just can’t stand it. I didn’t like it in the beginning, and I didn’t like it this time.
How has cancer changed your outlook on life, family, work?
I believe I probably got cancer twice from stress. I was in two very stressful job situations and I think this could be why. Of course, nobody knows why. Now my goal is to not to have that much stress in my life.
I love my profession now. It makes me sad because I was really good at what I was doing. (Previously, Babs worked as a domestic violence advocate for 20 years.) Now, I want to try to avoid as much stress as possible. I am still looking for a place to do art with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, but for now I am good with helping people going through cancer express themselves creatively… and heal!
Now I want to do art whenever I can because I have watched myself and other people transform right before my eyes. This is the way I get stuff out, through art.
What words of advice would you share with someone newly diagnosed?
I would say to get try it out however you can. If you write, then write. If you do art, do that. Whatever it takes. For me, it is so important for me to do art during the process so I had some type of grounding, some function in life as I was going through it all.