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The Art of Letting Go When You Have Cancer

I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in September 2015. The news came out of nowhere — I had no symptoms, no family history, just a funky pap smear. I made it through surgery and six months of chemo feeling isolated, scared and overwhelmed, before realizing that I was not alone, that much of what I experienced is typical for cancer patients, and that I had so much to give by sharing. So I volunteer with patients, helping to comfort them through the treatment experience. And I write and try to spread the word that cancer is an emotional diagnosis along with a physical one.

Once, when I wandered into the chemo suite at Mount Sinai Cancer Center where (in pre-COVID days), I volunteer once a week, Marika was working with a patient, saying, “You just have to let it go.” It sounded so profound, but this wasn’t some deep psychological conversation I was interrupting, this was a lesson in watercolor painting. Marika comes to the chemo suite a couple of times a week with various arts and crafts projects to help those receiving treatment pass the time. There are beads to be strung and origami to fold, but the most popular pastime is watercolor painting.

As I watched, she demonstrated the technique to Zoraida, who was awaiting her infusion. First, she wet the area to be colored. Next, she dipped the brush into a deep magenta and just tapped the brush to release a drop of color on the wet surface. The paint spread within the dampened area, flowing in unexpected ways, leaving some parts saturated with the deep pink, infusing others with a translucent glaze. As she layered on a second color, some areas turned to a brilliant purple, others, overlapping with yellow already on the page, turned muddy and deep.

It seemed like the perfect metaphor for being a cancer patient. There is so much we can’t control — the cancer we have, the treatment, the timing, how our bodies will respond — but, we can wet the paper and choose the color, be it ice blue or golden yellow. Sometimes we muddy the waters, sometimes we find surprising beauty and grace.

Zoraida knows a little about letting go of control. Not just because of her participation in Marika’s art projects, but because she’s had plenty of opportunity to practice. For more than a year she’s been receiving treatment for her current diagnosis, a recurrence, with cancer in her ovary, colon and appendix. She desperately wants to be done with treatment. She wants to focus on her garden and taking care of others in her community, and most of all, she wants to visit her family in Florida and her home in Puerto Rico to soak in the warmth. But every time she asks her doctor if she can take a few weeks off to travel, the answer is, “Let’s give it a little more time.” While she waits, she’s become a better artist, and a more resilient patient.

“I know I’ll get there,” she says. “I feel good, it’s bound to happen.” So, she takes her finished paintings back to her apartment complex in Brooklyn and shares what she’s learned with the kids and housebound elderly in her building. But she has more to share than watercolor skills.

Many of us have a hard time letting go of control. It’s just one of numerous insults the diagnosis brings. Having worked for myself for 30 years and raised a family and managed a household, I knew a little bit about control. My life was always tightly scheduled, the days, weeks, months planned out in advance. While I struggled with the existential questions raised by my uterine cancer, I found the need to relinquish control equally challenging.

How would I feel on the day of and days after treatment?

When would I begin to feel like myself again?

Would I be able to receive treatment as scheduled or would delays creep in as my body failed to bounce back?

When would I lose my hair and when would it grow back?

When would I start to feel like myself again and when could I put this whole ordeal behind me?

I couldn’t plan even one day in advance, and life was totally out of control.

Now, five years after diagnosis, my doctor tells me there is no evidence of disease, and I no longer feel the same urge to control the uncontrollable.

Friend running late for lunch? I’ll have a cup of coffee and catch up on my email.

Traffic moving too slowly? I’ll just find some good music to listen to while I wait.

Too many items on the To Do list to get done this week? I’ll reprioritize.

That doesn’t mean I don’t make plans. And I certainly haven’t changed my list-making habit. But I’ve learned a little about letting go. I recognize when my paper is wet, when I have to just let it flow. And most days, I’m ready to dab on a little color and see what happens.

(Note: Art programs at Mount Sinai are provided by The Creative Center, which gives free art programs to patients with cancer and chronic disease in all stages of recovery. In addition to programs on-site at more than 30 medical facilities, it offers free workshops at locations throughout New York City. To learn more and to enroll, go to The Creative Center).

Photo credit: pticelov/Getty Images