Art Heals: Patients Share How Creativity Helped Them Navigate Cancer

It came out of the blue.

“No one in my family had cancer,” recalls artist and middle school art teacher Marie Pontti. “I’d gotten regular mammograms, and I was active and ate healthy. I thought. ‘No, this can’t be right.’”

But it was.

Art Heals - Marie Pontti

In 2022, eight months after a normal mammogram, Marie felt a gumball-sized mass under her breast. A subsequent ultrasound and biopsy led to a diagnosis of Stage 3C triple-negative breast cancer, a fast-growing and aggressive form of cancer that would ultimately require chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

The married mother of three and instructor at the online University View Academy recalls being shocked at the news, but she says creativity was her outlet throughout the journey.

“It was really scary. But I was fortunate to be in a situation where I could keep working with my students,” Marie recalls. “And I also started an art journal. I wanted somewhere to process my feelings and place my thoughts in creativity instead of just ruminating in fear.”

She was treated by Lauren Zatarain, M.D., medical oncologist, Mary Bird Perkins and Wendy Bowie, M.D., breast surgeon, Woman’s Hospital. As a part of her treatment, Marie underwent several rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by a lumpectomy. She also received radiation therapy at Mary Bird Perkin’s Essen Lane main campus to address a cancerous spot under her collarbone.

Art Heals - Marie Pontti

The diagnosis came with its share of sadness and stress. But painting and drawing in her journal and sharing her journey with her students and friends helped keep negative thoughts at bay, Marie says.

“I think we as human beings fear that cancer might happen to us at some point,” she said. “Sharing my artwork and processing the cancer through social media, I think that helped not just me, but other people, too.”

Indeed, art can help patients stay in a positive place while enduring cancer’s emotional rollercoaster, experts say.

“Art offers a distraction. The ability to express emotions through any kind of medium can heal both the mind and spirit,” said Jingya Wang, M.D., Mary Bird Perkins radiation oncologist. “Getting lost in the beauty of art is like chicken soup for the soul, much needed during a difficult cancer journey.”

Art Heals - Claire Gowdy

Art also played a big role in how Claire Gowdy made sense of a cancer experience that began after a breast cancer diagnosis last fall.

Claire and her doctor had been monitoring a spot that had remained unchanged on previous mammograms until her annual screening in 2023. A follow-up ultrasound and biopsy revealed a small DCIS tumor.

“There’s definitely a deep emotion associated with getting a diagnosis of cancer,” says Claire, a successful painter whose work is sold regionally and around the country. “No one wants to be in the “C” club. Once you’re in that club you have new experiences, new emotions, new fears, new friends, and even new joy.”

Continuing to paint and think about her own artwork, while also observing the numerous pieces installed throughout Mary Bird Perkins, kept her grounded, she says.

Art Heals - Claire Gowdy

Claire also created a video series for her Instagram page, documenting her experience undergoing radiation therapy to help her process the experience and to demystify it for others. On her last treatment day, she arrived at Mary Bird Perkins in an all-black ensemble accentuated by a flowing, scarlet scarf, a colorful symbol of the cancer leaving her body. The video is set to OneRepublic’s upbeat song, “I Lived,” and the final shot shows Claire giving the red scarf a swift kick as she leaves the building.

“Art stimulates the right side of your brain,” she says. “When you’re involved in art in whatever capacity, it puts you in a different mindset and helps you get through something difficult.”