The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Cancer and Creativity

by Naomi VolainPatient, Breast CancerNovember 13, 2023View more posts from Naomi Volain

Can pencils cure cancer? Of course not, but drawing with them helped me illustrate and express my cancer trauma. Their colors and potential were a powerful force. It wasn’t obvious at first. Yet the creativity of cartooning with pencils became an important part of my cancer odyssey.

I had been creating comics for a few years when I was diagnosed with cancer. I went numb. I grabbed my sketchbook and pencils. I created wild pictures with illegible script that only I could read. They weren’t for anyone else, just me. The events, details, and emotions jumped into the comic panels. My mind was all over, charged up. I wanted to capture it. My comics were raw. The pencils were comforting.

The physical movements of cartooning empowered me. Choosing the colors, sharpening the pencils, turning on the light, setting up the paper, and deciding on the panel layout. There was a reliable rhythm to it.

Cartooning brought me away from my medical treatments—changing into a johnny, getting an IV, taking deep breaths, swallowing my pills, appointment logistics, scans, chemo, radiation… I felt I was done to—I was not the doer. I didn’t choose these medical motions, but I did them to get rid of my cancer. I did choose to make art. When I created with my hands and my mind, I had freedom away from my medical life. Creative freedom.

Cancer and creativity have some parallels. In the creative process, time is needed away from the art to fuel new energy and new ideas. In cancer treatment, a time to do nothing and rest is important too. It fuels our recovery with time away from all the physical, emotional, and mental trauma.

Do you have a creativity prequel or origin story? For me, I loved to draw and do art as a kid. Once I hit high school, I started judging my art. I couldn’t compare or compete with other talented students’ art.

Yet art is not a competition. It just is. It emerges from the creator. The artist doesn’t have to make money; the artist doesn’t have to be famous.

I went back to high school to teach science. I taught my students to use their own creativity to learn. They designed experiments and field studies, sculpted models, moved to show scientific relationships, and drew pictures and diagrams. We had a blast. Then, I started drawing cartoons to teach them. They got it. The science came to them from my creativity.

Fast forward to our cancer. How can we take care of ourselves? There’s self-care, therapy, mindfulness—helpful, yes. But they can be an unintended burden in the things that we, as cancer patients are tasked to do.

You may be thinking, I can’t draw, I can’t write, I’m too tired to dance or sing, or I can’t craft. It’s hard, I know. But giving yourself your own creative space can give you control and ownership. What you create has meaning. Trust yourself.

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