Although there are no words to describe the difficulty of a cancer diagnosis, for some the feel of a brush on an empty canvas helps express what words cannot.

“Lilly Oncology on Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey” is an art exhibit currently displayed at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center.

The art is created by anyone from the United States or Puerto Rico who has been diagnosed with cancer, as well as families, friends, caregivers and healthcare providers of those affected by cancer.

“It’s more of an awareness opportunity,” said Mary Ellen Carano, coordinator of Cancer Resource Center. “This represents people through all different types of cancers, through all different stages of cancers. It really is an opportunity to get a sense of what that experience means to them. [It shows] the process of walking through a diagnosis of cancer, through treatment, and survivorship.”

The purpose behind the gallery is to express feelings. The pieces reflect life-changing moments through the journeys of each of the patients and those affected by cancer.

“For someone dealing with a terminal case of cancer, I can’t even imagine,”  said Jennifer Drinkwater, lecturer in the College of Design. “I absolutely can see how artmaking would be crucial to that, because it’s a way to get out energy, sadness, trauma, grief, in a way that if you don’t have the words for it, but you can manipulate color or shape [or] pattern in a way to express something that you maybe can’t get your mind wrapped around verbally.”

Themes in the art include fear and hope, loss and survival, feelings of isolation, and the support of friends and family. Mediums include mixed media, photography, acrylic and oil paint, and water color.

“[Art can cause] relaxation,” Drinkwater said. “It can be a very meditative process, too, where you’re not thinking and you’re not thinking stressful thoughts. You’re lowering cortisol levels and reducing adrenaline. It’s probably in some ways as beneficial as meditating or yoga.”

The exhibit shows artwork from the 2010 Lilly Oncology on Canvas competition. The gallery is touring nationwide at hospitals, cancer centers and advocacy events. The Cancer Center currently has 25 pieces from the competition.

“We requested [the exhibit to come to Ames],” Carano said. “Basically, it travels around the United States, and if you request it, there is an opportunity to get it. We thought it would be a good awareness opportunity.”

The winners of the competition receive donations made in their name to a charity of their choice. The first, second and third place winners can be seen at the Cancer Center.

“The act of painting or the act of making art, the physical component of it, I think can be really cathartic and a strong release,” Drinkwater said. “I would say especially if it’s a calm thing, and if it’s an active thing, you’re getting blood moving. … It’s such a meditative practice; it’s training your mind to slow down and shut off. If you have a chronic illness, you’re mentally spinning into ‘What’s going to happen? How can I heal?’”

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