LUMBERTON — An acrylic painting on display at Gibson Cancer Center depicts a woman relaxing in a reclining chair on the beach, gazing at the ocean from under a floppy hat, while the sun shines above her.
“How could anything so beautiful be so deadly?” the caption reads. “That is what I asked myself when I heard the word ‘melanoma’ from my doctor.”
The painting, created by a cancer patient in South Carolina, is part of an art exhibition called “Lilly Oncology on Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey,” which will be on display in Lumberton until June 16.
The 24-piece exhibit is free and open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. The exhibition honors the physical and emotional journeys people face when confronted with a cancer diagnosis.
“Wellness is more than just chemotherapy and radiation,” said Michael Smith, the director of the Gibson Cancer Center. “Wellness is feeling good about yourself, being able to do artwork, being able to view artwork like this. That’s what we try to provide here. To me, we are more than just a treatment center.”
The caption of “Sun Worshipper” goes on to tell about the artist’s love affair with the sun, which began with vacations to the beach, and continued after retirement with a move to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“Anything to take these patients’ minds off what they’re going through is what we try to do,” Smith said. “Art work can do that. You can get lost in a photo or lost in a picture, just to give you that little bit of relief that you might not have had if this wasn’t here.”
One painting on display, called “I am Woman, Warrior, Survivor” was made by Zelma McGugan, a Red Springs resident. McGugan was diagnosed with breast cancer and had surgery in 2005.
Her piece, made with watercolor and acrylic paint, shows a pale woman with no hair hooked to a chemo bag, an emptiness in her eyes.
“She was me,” McGugan said. “That’s what the doctors and nurses saw me as. Just another chemo patient. … In my mind I had to become the warrior that’s in the front. I had to be a woman first, a warrior second, and a survivor last.”
In the foreground, a woman with long brown hair dressed in boots and a loincloth holds a sword and a shield adorned with a breast cancer awareness pink ribbon. Scars linger where her breasts would be.
“I was thinking along the lines of an Amazon,” McGugan said. “The Amazon women would cut off their breasts so they wouldn’t get in the way when they fought. … If they could do that, I could get through this one fight.”
McGugan has been in remission for six years.
Russell Chavis and his wife Ellen were at the cancer center Monday looking at the exhibition. Russell has a blood disorder that required some chemotherapy, and takes cancer medication to control it.
“I enjoy looking at art,” Russell said. “People that have cancer, a lot of people just give up and the ones that don’t give up are the ones that last the longest. I’m not one to give up.”
Russell said his outlet is woodworking — making swings for friends when he feels well enough.
“It relaxes me and makes me see that I can accomplish something in the shape I’m in,” Russell said. “… Just something to keep going.”
His wife Ellen browsed the exhibition as well.
“I think it’s encouraging for someone who comes in maybe for the first time and seeing what others have gone through and seeing how they are expressing their feelings,” Ellen said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
The wide variety of paintings, with varying themes ranging from hopeful to fearful, are all made by people affected by cancer — survivors, patients, caregivers, family members or health care professionals.
“It shows a lot of perspectives on how patients feel,” said Michelle Gaskins, an oncology nurse at Gibson Cancer Center. “Not really wanting to hide it, to let it be known, not to be scared about the diagnosis. I see it as a way to relate to other patients. If somebody else is feeling the same way that they’re feeling they’re not having to hide it in. That’s one of the things that we find is that patients don’t want their families to know how they feel.”
The center tries to treat the whole patient with events like the art exhibition and Terrific Tuesdays, a once-a-month program that treats patients to chair massages, manicures and hair cuts. They also offer “Look Good, Feel Better,” a program that allows patients to get makeup and hair advice by a license cosmetologist.
“To me, when I look at a piece of art … I may wonder, hey, where is that or I may want to go there or what was the inspiration for this person painting that picture,” Smith said. “If I have cancer, it takes my mind off the fact that I’m dealing with chemotherapy or my hair’s falling out or that my nails are turning black.”
The nation-wide exhibition is the finale of an annual competition that saw more than 500 entries this year.
One watercolor of eight tulips displays the vast impact cancer has throughout the world. Seven of the tulips are pink, while one is yellow — representing the statistic that one woman in eight will be a cancer victim.
“I am a two-time survivor of breast cancer —the one in eight,” the artist’s caption reads. “But now I am faced with a daughter who is meeting the same challenges I had but with new information and procedures. She is now the one in eight.”