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Art Project Helps Cancer Patients Come to Grips With Their Illness

June 30, 1988|PHILIPP GOLLNER | Times Staff Writer

Richard Campbell was under so much stress handling customer complaints for an engineering company that he ran 10 kilometers every evening after work to release tension. Then, on his 60th birthday, Campbell lay underneath a surgeon's scalpel for treatment of what Campbell now believes was the ultimate consequence of his stress: cancer.

Although researchers have not established conclusive evidence that stress can lead to cancer, Campbell is certain that his state of mind played a key role--first, in causing his sickness, and second, after changing his outlook, in enabling him to survive for seven years without a recurrence.

What helped Campbell, now 67, come to terms with his lymph cancer was rediscovering the joy of painting after many years of subjugating it to his job and his family. Campbell's paintings, along with those by 44 other local artists with cancer, have been exhibited in the Bowyer Multidisciplinary Oncology Clinic Gallery at UCLA, part of a 6-year-old program designed to help cancer patients come to terms with their illness through art.

Ideal Setting

The "gallery" is really the patient waiting area of the clinic, one of two cancer clinics in UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. The clinic's walls can't compete with museum space as a showcase for art, but they are the perfect setting for these paintings because cancer patients can see what other people with the disease are able to do despite the illness, said gallery director Devra Breslow.

"I'll be able to touch people unconsciously who are waiting here for chemotherapy," said Monica Sicile, a 33-year-old professional artist who underwent surgery for thyroid cancer two years ago. "It (cancer treatment) is very frightening, especially at the beginning."

The gallery's exhibit now features works by 80-year-old Henry Zwerg, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer eight years ago. Zwerg said the exhibit is the first time he has publicly displayed his work, despite a lifelong love of painting and photography.

Founded in 1982

The gallery has featured an average of nine exhibits each year since its founding in 1982. Breslow said she got the idea for the gallery after a UCLA physician introduced her to a photographer who was dying of breast cancer. Breslow and the physician decided that a photo exhibit would help lift the woman's spirits, as well as beautify the walls of the clinic.

The exhibit was such a success with both artists and patients that Breslow, then the editor of a cancer clinic newsletter, began to devote most of her time to coordinating similar exhibits for other artists with cancer. At first, the gallery was limited to UCLA patients, but it soon featured exhibits from artists from around the state, Breslow said. Interest jumped after a short announcement about the program was printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1985, she said.

"I got very close to these people," she said. "I would visit them in the hospital. It (the gallery) just kind of grew."

Last year, Breslow helped to organize a similar exhibit in Glendale that was open to artists from across the nation who had cancer. Breslow said the three-week program, called "Confronting Cancer Through Art 1987," was the first exhibit of its kind featuring works by cancer patients from throughout the country.

70% are Women Artists

Breslow said the Bowyer clinic is one of five academically oriented hospital programs nationwide that has exhibits by artists with cancer. The others are at Duke University, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington, she said. Fifty percent of the Bowyer gallery's exhibits are by professional artists, she added, and 70% are by women, who she said seem to be more able to confront the illness and express their feelings about it.

"We value this not because every exhibit is world-class art--some are, some aren't," said Dr. Gregory P. Sarna , director of the Bowyer clinic. "We think this is inspirational to other patients, and we think that for the patients who provide it, it's worthwhile to them."

Several of the artists, including the photographer with breast cancer, have not lived long enough to see their own exhibits. Four exhibits, Breslow said, have been devoted to artists suffering from Kaposi's sarcoma, a normally rare skin cancer that afflicts many people in the advanced stages of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

One message Breslow hopes the gallery will get across to patients is that a diagnosis of cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. In fact, she said, most of the artists have lived for several years without a recurrence, and very few of them have terminal cases.

Change of View

Campbell is one such "survivor," as non-terminal cancer patients call themselves.

"I've always believed that cancer meant death," he said. "It does, quite frequently, but not necessarily."

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