The face of cancer

The face of cancer

When Sandra Fink May first saw the masks worn by some patients who receive radiation treatment, her artist’s eye imagined artwork. What she didn’t expect is that they could become a form of therapy.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016, May underwent surgery at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill., before beginning a month-long regimen of radiation treatments at the hospital. That’s where she noticed the plastic mesh masks, which are used to immobilize the upper body of patients receiving radiation treatment for cancers of the head and neck.

“As soon as I saw them, tons of ideas started percolating in my mind,” May says. “I was very enthusiastic about the form.”

Upon learning that the masks are disposed of when radiation therapy is completed, May asked if she could take them home to her art studio in Richmond, Ill. The hospital gave her about two dozen, cleaning them first and removing any evidence of patient identification. Once in her studio with them, May’s creativity flowed.

Mounting them to canvases and using materials from painted cloth to peacock feathers, May has transformed the masks into three-dimensional portraits. They range in size from 14-inches-by-11-inches to 40-inches-by-50-inches.

During a recent showing, gallery visitors remarked at the rich colors and fascinating mix of textures. Then, when they learned the backstory and May’s own experience as a cancer survivor, a strange thing happened. Some people – complete strangers – wanted to talk to May about their own experiences with cancer and that of their loved ones.

“I think they felt comfortable sharing these feelings,” May says. “I’m an artist, not a therapist, but by creating these three-dimensional portraits, I am providing therapy for myself and others.”

Ten of May’s pieces were on display at Good Shepherd Hospital on July 13 during an open house for the hospital’s new Varian TrueBeam linear accelerator. The hospital now has three ways to deliver radiation therapy to cancer patients – TrueBeam, Trilogy and Intraoperative Radiation Therapy.

When Dr. Catherine Park, May’s radiation oncologist, saw the artwork at the open house, she was awestruck.

“They’re stunning,” Dr. Park says. “It’s incredible how something so beautiful can come out of what could be a frightening experience. They have become therapy for Sandra and for others. It’s simply amazing.”

May will be showing the three-dimensional portraits at a gallery in Milwaukee and elsewhere, and she plans to donate sales proceeds to cancer research.

May says her cancer diagnosis a year ago knocked her feet out from under her, but the support and expertise of the oncology team at Good Shepherd helped her believe that together, they could beat the disease. Today, she considers each day a gift.

“Each day is special and wonderful. I take nothing for granted. The paintings I’m making, the jewelry I’m creating, the life I am living – it’s all fabulous,” May says. “I’m not going to waste a moment of whatever I’ve got. I’m looking forward to all of my adventures.”

She has one piece of advice to other women facing cancer: Don’t go it alone.

“Women have a tendency to try to bear it alone. We shouldn’t,” she says. “There is a marvelous sisterhood out there, so don’t try to carry this burden alone. Help is there. Reach for it.”

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About the Author

Kathleen Troher
Kathleen Troher

Kathleen Troher, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Good Sheperd Hospital in Barrington. She has more than 20 years of journalism experience, with her primary focus in the newspaper and magazine industry. Kathleen graduated from Columbia College in Chicago, earning her degree in journalism with an emphasis on science writing and broadcasting. She loves to travel with her husband, Ross. They share their home with a sweet Samoyed named Maggie.