Art as Brain Tumor Therapy
New Art Exhibit Showcases Work from Patients with a Brain Tumor
On the day Leslie Allen learned she had a brain tumor, she left work and went to her art studio to paint.
“I paint my way through everything – whatever challenge in life,” she said.
The resulting piece depicts the meningioma located right between her eyes. Without even realizing it, Allen ended up with a series of four self-portraits documenting her reflections on the path over the seven months from diagnosis all the way through the surgeries she needed to remove her tumor.
Allen is now one of the 28 artists whose work is on display at the UC San Francisco Faculty Alumni House until July 1. “For the Love of Art” features original art, photography, and even music created by people who received treatment at the UCSF Brain Tumor Center.
The exhibit is the brainchild of UCSF neuro-oncologist and co-director of the Sheri Sobrato Brisson Brain Cancer Survivorship Program Susan Chang, MD. Over her 30-year career, she has been continually inspired by the way many of her patients channeled their experiences into creativity. “[The works] capture the personal impact of a brain tumor while celebrating the beauty of life and the therapeutic power of self-expression,” she said.
The exhibit is a collaboration between the Survivorship Program and the Art for Recovery program within the UCSF Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I really appreciate Dr. Chang’s vision for the exhibit,” said Art for Recovery director Amy Van Cleve, adding that she was excited to put together a community gathering that would bring together brain tumor patients using art as part of their therapy.
“This event makes my heart happy because I think we survivors help each other,” said photographer Tiffany Oreglia at the exhibit’s opening reception, where she and the other guests chatted about their art and exchanged contact information to keep in touch.
Although the art exhibit marked the first program Oreglia attended for brain tumor survivors in the six years since her initial diagnosis, others have been active in the UCSF brain tumor community for years.
L. Daniels, who is in Art for Recovery’s Writing with Music Workshop for Men, was happy to receive the invitation to present his work in the exhibit. He says his art describes the “long process” over the last 12 years since his initial diagnosis with a low-grade brain tumor.
“This is the real pit of when I was first diagnosed – a really dark pit from which I had to struggle out of,” he said, gesturing at his piece. “And then ‘adjusting’ refers to finally coming into the light, which happened at different points after both my surgeries.”
Daniels is now involved with many of projects in the Survivorship Program, including advocating for advancing the patient perspectives in neuro-oncology. He was the one of the first volunteers in UCSF Thrivers, a group of brain tumor patients trained to provide peer-to-peer support. “We give advice based on our personal experience, our path, and it’s very important,” he said.
Finding Meaning and Purpose Through Art
For Tessa McClary, receiving the news that she had a brain tumor while she was a college student was the impetus for her to strike out in a bold new direction in life.
She had been playing the piano since she was a child but had never planned to be a musician. Now she teaches piano professionally and in 2014, developed a play called “The Butterfly Ship.” During the pandemic when she and her collaborators had to pause live performances, the production took on a “new life” as a YouTube show for children where the characters “look for the treasures of daily life.”
“I always wanted to be some kind of artist like a writer or a musician,” McClary said, “but I think having this experience gave me the courage to do it.”
Other artists discovered that living with a brain tumor affected the subjects they chose in their pieces. For example, rather than the landscapes and portraits she had previously worked on, Allen paints about her newfound “personal mythology."
Similarly, Oreglia was focused on taking portraits of people before her diagnosis, but as a brain tumor survivor, she now takes photos of wildlife.
She likes to get on her bike or go kayaking to take pictures of what she sees around her and “not have to think about anything else.” She describes letting go of the lingering doubts about why she is pulling over to take the photo or what each individual picture means as a process almost like meditating.
“For us, the art is medicine. I think it keeps us here – finding anything that makes us happy."
“The animals let me check out,” Oreglia said. “When I get out there, it’s my timeout…where I can just look at the pretty things that are out there.”
“For us, the art is medicine,” she added. “I think it keeps us here – finding anything that makes us happy."
UCSF Thriver Kat Shotz, who is a marriage and family therapist and runs her own yoga practice, agrees, adding that creativity is her outlet. She now incorporates art into her yoga and meditation workshops.
The artists and exhibit organizers with the survivorship program and Art for Recovery are hoping to make this type of art show an annual event.
“I think you’ll all agree with me that these artistic works and writings are a source of inspiration and really highlight the resilience and creativity of the human spirit,” Chang said.
Join us next month on June 10 from 12-3pm at the next "For the Love of Art" event, featuring an open house of the exhibition, art session, and luncheon. Register here.