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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 November, 2004, 00:24 GMT
'Art helped me cope with breast cancer'
By Jane Elliott
BBC News Health Reporter

Nancy Bellen turned to art after discovering she had breast cancer. She is one of the artists exhibiting in Oncology on Canvas.

Eight years ago, Nancy Bellen got breast cancer. The diagnosis inspired her to switch careers and become a photographic artist.

Get well and sympathy cards sent from friends and family were used to make a collage to articulate Nancy's feelings and fears about her condition.

She is now a well-respected member of the art community whose photographs of women whose lives have been affected by breast cancer are respected globally.

But she is convinced that without her cancer she would never have discovered her artistic side and it has changed her life.


It has long been thought that art can be cathartic, helping people like Nancy with health and emotional crises to express themselves .

'Oncology on Canvas - Expressions of a woman's cancer journey', was launched to encourage women who have been diagnosed with cancer, their doctors, nurses, families and friends to submit artwork that represents their experiences.

My work allows me to live, it is how I express my fear
Nancy Bellen

The winner ,chosen from over 450 canvases, was Catalina Aroch Fugellie from Guatemala, whose work was inspired by her mother's cancer.

"I thought entering the contest was a good idea, not only for the possibility of donating the money to a place that has given so much to my mother, but also for the possibility of addressing, through my own work, my experience with cancer.

"A great opportunity to express the horrible moments that my family and I lived through when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, but also a great opportunity to express the happiness that I feel because my mom is alive and healthy now."

Professor Ian Smith, head of the Breast Unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital and one of the competition's judging panel, said art could be a powerful tool to help women like Catalina and Nancy come to terms with their cancer.

"I can imagine that it must be tremendously valuable. I am not an artist, but I have been aware that art therapy is a help for people who have had cancer.

"There have been many family members entering rather than just the patients, and it reinforces my views of the feelings of the stress that these families are under.

"The stress on family members is every bit as great, but all the facilities are geared, not surprisingly, to the patient.

"I think that one of the benefits this competition is going to have is to make other people aware of art as an outlet for their hopes and fears. I imagine a lot of people who have cancer are going to think this is something I can do."

Nancy agreed. When BBC News spoke to her she had been just given the news that a lump in her other breast was benign.

She was ecstatic, but admitted that her fear that the cancer will return is always present.

"I have been running around and dancing. Something showed up in my unaffected breast and that has been a huge source of worry for myself and my family.

"I worry all the time, but I do worry less and less. Sometimes I can go through weeks and months without thinking about it."

By Catalina Aroch Fugellie
'On hearing the news'

Nancy first discovered a lump when she was just eight weeks pregnant with her second child. Doctors told her that the pregnancy hormones were triggering the cancer, which had grown to the size of a golf ball. She had a termination, followed by chemotherapy.


Following her treatment and diagnosis she helped raise the cash for a local centre for women near her home in Santa Rosa, California,. Ironically, she was the first patient to use it when her recent lump was discovered.

"Before the cancer I was working as a film editor, but then I was too sick to work. I started doing art work and I ended up building a collage with the cards people were sending me. I heard there was an art competition and so I submitted four pieces.

"I take photos of nudes of women who have either had or have been affected by breast cancer. I use one woman whose mother died of breast cancer when she was just 17.

"My work allows me to live, it is how I express my fear. But I didn't consider myself an artist until I was diagnosed.

"I find art absolutely elemental. I don't do my art work for anyone in particular. I do it for me."

Edmundo Muniz, a spokesman for the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, which sponsored the competition, said he hoped it could be used to inspire other women and their families to use art.

"Throughout time, art therapy has proven a powerful emotional outlet for people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses, and a valuable adjunct to conventional medical therapy.

Art as mental therapy
03 Jul 02 |  Health


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