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February 4, 1998

Healing Cast in a New Light: The Therapy of Artistic Creation

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JAMA. 1998;279(5):402. doi:10.1001/jama.279.5.402-JMS0204-5-1

One does not usually think of art and breast cancer in the same breath but I am learning to do just that as I explore the use of art to help me heal.

Ten years ago, I attended a presentation by sculptor Christiane Corbat. She crafts beautiful, powerful images based on the human body and has created a series of Amazon torsos with mastectomies. I was struck by the power of those pieces and way they combined the myth of the Amazon warrior with a contemporary experience of breast cancer. The images created are not simply medical illustrations or stories of personal tragedy, but very strong and beautiful visual art.

I remembered Christiane's work 4 years later when I found myself undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer. Christiane and I discussed her work and my operation, and I was stunned to hear her say she had difficulty finding women able to bring something positive from the experience of breast cancer to the process of sculpting. I, too, felt unable to interpret my experience in a positive light. It was an extremely difficult ordeal, and I had nothing good to say except that I was alive. I struggled with this problem for years until I became aware that my health and happiness depended on my ability to transform my experience with breast cancer and surgery into something positive.

The day came when I was ready. I did not want to be an armor-plated Amazon warrior. It was significant to me that my left breast had been removed, which I interpreted as insulation taken from over my heart, bringing it closer to the surface. As I stood covered in petroleum jelly, Christiane began applying wet plaster gauze to my torso giving me a new, tight hard skin that I found strangely comforting. I felt safe and protected, like a giant bug with all my squishy bits tucked inside my exoskeleton.

The plaster cast made me think that I was broken and being reset in order to heal. My plaster exoskeleton became a warm chrysalis and my soft bug bits solidified as my pupa matured to imago. As I wriggled out of my hard shell I remembered having watched a monarch butterfly pump its moist crumpled wings out full and shapely and dry. I mimicked the movement and made as if to take flight. I felt transformed!

The magnitude of the changes I have been able to effect in my life since creating the sculpture astonishes me. I realize I am as happy and optimistic as I have ever been. I had no idea of that possibility when I found the lump in my breast while showering in 1991. When the shock of the wholly unexpected diagnosis the trauma of major surgery, and the rigors of chemotherapy were over, I found that living my life and coming to terms with cancer became one process. It is the same life forever altered in ways I discover every time I dress and undress, look in the mirror, encounter the glossy cleavage of Cosmopolitan cover girls, discuss medical insurance with my boss, see the oncologist, or look at my daughter.

The sculpture Night Light created by Pamela Cruze and artist Christiane Corbat. (Photograph by Chee-Heng Yeong.)

The sculpture Night Light created by Pamela Cruze and artist Christiane Corbat. (Photograph by Chee-Heng Yeong.)

Christiane took our conversations and my plaster exoskeleton and created the sculpture Night Light. A night light is a small beacon that burns through the darkest hours offering comfort and hope. When I first saw the sculpture, I noted in my journal, "I'm having trouble with the color and finish. It looks like angry skin. Too red and shiny. I think of the redness caused by radiation treatments. Of the Mayan victims who were flayed. It looks like perhaps it is without skin."

Now I no longer find the sculpture disturbing. I love the jagged edge that addresses the invasiveness of surgery, the softness of the down that gently whispers that it was done out of love, the vaulted arcs that echo the rib cage and remind me that my body is a temple for my soul. I find it honest, simple, comforting, quiet, strong, peaceful, and filled with beauty.

Night Light travels. She has been in galleries and conferences across the United States. Now she is visiting my house for a while. The other day I followed an old plumber as he turned and stopped short in front of her. "Look at that!" he said. "Isn't that something. An open heart. That looks like it's inspiration. . . . Is it about an open heart?"

I flipped the switch and the lights glowed. "It's a response to breast cancer," I answered. "But yes, it is about an open heart." I felt triumphant, victorious over my disease for the first time. The guy gets it. He understands. It is exactly about an open heart.