What I Learned From Breast Cancer And Art: Be Brave And Break The Rules When You Can

by Melissa Fuoss
Originally Published: 
breast cancer
Melissa Wood

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law went with me to one of those paint nights at a cute little art studio. They are the ones where an instructor leads the whole class through a lesson and everyone ends up creating the same version of a painting. They’re also ones where (mostly) women gather with their friends, family, or co-workers, to drink wine and do their best to imitate the artist’s brush strokes.

I remember looking around the room and seeing everyone working so carefully to follow the directions, to move their brushes in just the right way. I saw how my mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s paintings were evolving so nicely. They had patience, precision, and some natural talent.

And then something came over me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I remember wondering if I was brave enough to break the rules — to smear my paint and start over, to make my own version of a tree. As a usual rule-follower, this was hard for me. I moved my brush back and forth and all the colors smeared together to make this deep shade of black. Oh shit. I saw the instructor give me the side-eye.

But once the initial shock that I had actually gone rogue was over, I started to relax. It didn’t appear as if anyone was going to kick me out. And so I gave into my wild rebellion and made a dark sky (that for some reason had stars and a sun) with a bare tree and these two simple words: Be you.

Now, looking at this painting, it feels like a premonition. Is it crazy to think that? Probably.

But I can’t help but think that tree is me. Me after chemo — bare — all my leaves, fallen and blown away. Me, naked against a dark sky, and vulnerable. And that sun? The sun that I, for some reason, painted into the night — that sun is the promise of light. It makes total sense. And it makes no sense at all. But life is funny like that.

As this October marches on, I feel a certain weight of sadness. Not a heavy coat of sadness, not winter sadness — maybe just windbreaker sadness. I notice the trees starting to surrender their leaves, and the gentle way they dance to the ground. Fall signals change, and now it will forever remind me of cancer. October also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness month, so there are lots of pink reminders too. There are even pink ribbons on my cereal box.

But this picture reminds me that there is always a “before.” We never know when our lives are about to change. So be brave. Break the rules when you can. Listen to that little voice telling you to blur the lines.

Be you.

And also do your monthly self-checks and get those mammograms.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. For more information, visit The National Breast Cancer Foundation.

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