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Local artist helps cancer patients creatively express their journey through art

As evidenced by the discovery of prehistoric cave paintings, the drive to create and express ourselves through art is written in our DNA. Throughout history art has been a powerful form of communication. Every detail of a work of art, from the colors chosen to the individual brushstrokes, reveals a piece of the artist’s soul. Additionally, artistic expression is increasingly recognized by healthcare professionals for its therapeutic benefits. For A. Jack May the creative process has long served as an “escape hatch” from the stress that often accompanies daily life.

At 12 years old, May began sketching bucolic scenes influenced by his childhood home in Jackson, Kentucky. His informal beginnings as an artist have contributed to his conviction that “art should not be work.” May’s approach emphasizes the accessibility of art to all skill levels and backgrounds. Through the use of “simple tools” including pen and ink and traditional watercolors, his work pays homage to the beauty found in nature’s most common subjects. Art according to May is an organic process that encourages taking the time to focus on details and provides the opportunity to “view the world through a different lens.”

May credits lessons about the power of resilience and a positive attitude, learned from his work as an artist, for his professional successes as a practicing lawyer, professor of law, and judge. The greatest test of May’s strength, however, came in 2009 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Determined to maintain his trademark optimism, May continued to utilize art to channel the many emotions involved in the treatment process into the creation of something positive and meaningful.

His watercolor series, “Blooming Weeds,” is the product of many hours spent reflecting and sketching during weekly chemotherapy treatments at Commonwealth Cancer Center. It features weeds and other invasive plant life in order to challenge the popular belief that weeds lack all purpose and value and only hinder the growth of beneficial vegetation. May’s work aims to help transform the dialogue about cancer in a way that emphasizes the ability to continue living a productive and fulfilling life while undergoing treatment.

According to May, “weeds are ugly and invasive -- like the disease -- but they continue to live, they exist.” His work communicates that life in any context is beautiful and should be valued.

In addition to spreading his message through the creation of art, May’s experience has inspired him to share the therapeutic benefits of his craft with other cancer patients coping with the emotional effects of treatment.

May is working in conjunction with the Central Kentucky Cancer Center’s Cancer Support Group (facilitated monthly by Commonwealth Cancer Center, Ephraim McDowell Cancer Support Clinic, and 21st Century Radiation Oncology) to offer an “Expressions through Art” watercolor session during the group’s November meeting.

Cheryl Bolling, RN, OCN, a founding member and support group facilitator from Commonwealth Cancer Center, says the addition of the art session to the group’s program helps to further its mission to provide a forum for all “patients, family, friends and caregivers whose lives have been affected by cancer.” Bolling believes that “art is an effective medium because many individuals who struggle to express themselves through words can find a way through art.”

According to Laura Williams, a radiation therapist from 21st Century Radiation Oncology and also one of the support group founders, “creating a relaxed environment where those who attend the group sessions can feel comfortable” is a priority for the facilitators. She believes that engaging in enjoyable activities, like May’s Watercolor Session, demonstrates ways to “lighten the burden of treatment.”
Bolling, Williams, and Kristin Steele, RNBC, BSN (support group leader from Ephraim McDowell’s cancer care program) agree that the art session is particularly effective because “it gives the patients something to be proud of, and they are often surprised at their own capabilities.”
May agrees: “This is their opportunity to really express themselves,” also noting that the unique personalities and stories of each of the participants truly comes through in their work.

“Art is inherently therapeutic and the capacity to create is alive within us all,” adds May. “Art is in your body, within your soul… all you must do is let it out, let it happen.”


The “Expressions through Art” cancer support group session will take place Tuesday, November 1 (5-5:45 p.m.) at Central Kentucky Cancer Center in Danville. Art materials and a meal will be provided free of charge to participants. Please call Commonwealth Cancer Center at (859) 236-2203 to confirm your attendance by October 28.
For more information about the cancer support group, which meets the first Tuesday of every month at the center, please call 859-236-2203. The group is designed for anyone whose lives have been affected by cancer, including patients, their family, friends and caregivers. Session topics are determined by group members themselves.

Central Kentucky Cancer Center is a fully-integrated cancer care facility that aligns the entire spectrum of cancer-care options among its partners: Commonwealth Cancer Center, 21st Radiation Oncology and Ephraim McDowell Health. Services include medical oncology, radiation oncology and a multitude of support services in one, accessible location -- just off the South Danville Bypass at Lebanon Road.

For more information on the full-range of specialized care provided by the partners of Central Kentucky Cancer Center, visit www.centralkentuckycancercenter.com.

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