Almost 40 years ago President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971 and kicked off the nation’s “War on Cancer.” Since then great progress has been made in the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer: radio imaging can detect the smallest pre-cancerous conditions; tailored therapies target specific tumor types for improved outcomes; and the first cancer prevention vaccine (for cervical cancer) was approved, to name a few innovations. Survivorship rates for many types of cancer have increased and some cancers are almost viewed as chronic diseases instead of death sentences.
No one ever wants to hear, or to utter, the words “you have cancer.” But so much progress on the clinical side may help take the sting out of some diagnoses. On the psychosocial side, however, the news is not as good: very little is being done to assess and treat the psychosocial needs of cancer survivors, which in many cases may be acute and long lasting.
The most significant impetus to step up efforts for increased access to psychosocial support services comes from an October 2007 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report: Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs have a peek at this website. The report concludes that quality psychosocial care is critical to cancer survivorship. According to National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) President and CEO Thomas P. Sellers, “cancer is more than a physical disease; it affects your emotions, your relationships, your spirituality…and much, much more.”
Six years ago –long before the IOM report saw the light of day– TogoRun created Oncology On CanvasSM: Expressions of a Cancer Journey art competition and exhibition in response to Eli Lilly and Company’s desire to provide doctors and their patients with support that went beyond medicine. The biennial competition — presented in partnership with the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship — invites individuals diagnosed with any type of cancer, their families, friends, caregivers and healthcare providers to express through art and narrative, “the life-affirming changes that give their cancer journeys meaning.”
My own experience with this program since its inception affirms the truth of the IOM Report – that the non-physical aspects of cancer can leave scars as long-lasting as any caused by surgery or radiation. Attention must be paid to the humanity of the experience and the wisdom that can be found there. Since 2004, more than 3,000 entries have arrived in our offices from patients, doctors, nurses, caregivers, families and friends. Hundreds of art exhibitions have been mounted and millions of lines of copy written about the program. Oncology on Canvas has given a voice – through words and images – to everyone touched by cancer.
As the entries continue to pour in for the 2010 competition, our fourth, I am reminded of the faces of cancer I’ve met along the way: John, whose daughter Jeannine discovered the healing powers of painting while undergoing breast cancer treatments; Anne, whose young daughter Katherine taught her that life “is not a dress rehearsal,” even when you’re battling lung cancer; and Ellen Stovall, past president of NCCS, a super star in the cancer community, a 37-year survivor and a real sweetheart. During the first Oncology On Canvas exhibition in 2005, I met a woman who desperately needed to talk to someone about her niece, a new mother with Stage IV breast cancer. Ellen had been a new mom when she was diagnosed with cancer 32 years prior. Could she give her some advice? “Give me a minute,” was Ellen’s reply as she quickly wrapped up her conversation with the event sponsor and turned her attention to the fearful woman. Ellen’s generosity in sharing her experience, and the woman’s profound relief, was powerful proof of the need for psychosocial support.
Let’s face it. I, like most people, am afraid of cancer. But I don’t think of it as “The Big C” anymore. I reserve the “C” for more deserving words, such as courage, compassion, and well…canvas.