Thanks to our lives currently being bombarded with pink, you probably know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every year of high school, I spent October truly “pinking” out my life. I’d make dozens of hair bows for my tennis team. I’d design pink t-shirts for us to wear through regionals.
Any time I saw an opportunity to support breast cancer awareness, I took it. I always knew this was partially due to losing my grandmother to a near 10-year battle with breast cancer when I was 12 years old. However, it wasn’t until a year ago, in October of 2016, that I realized how big of an impact my grandmother’s struggle with breast cancer had on me.
Senior year of high school, I was enrolled in AP Studio Art, which meant that I had to decide on a theme for the concentration section of my portfolio. Basically, I was left with the task of telling a story in twelve pieces. I went through a few different ideas, but due to the fact that it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, my grandmother’s story was strong in the back of my mind. I knew that it would be a sad story to tell, and that a large chunk of my senior year would be spent creating it. I knew in my gut that it was right. It felt like something I owed to my grandmother. I wanted to make her proud.
Figuring out where to begin was difficult, so I decided to go back to what I always remembered about my grandma and her cancer. Because I was so young at this time, what I remember most prominently is her hair: how beautiful it was before it started falling out, how she had to shave her head and the wigs she would despise wearing when she went out. I remember it growing as she came into remission, only for it to disappear again and again.
As I illustrated the effect breast cancer has on a woman, I knew that I wanted the loss of hair to be a focal point, starting the series with a beautiful head of thick hair, going on to illustrate the shaving and eventual deterioration to nothing.
In addition to hair, I wanted to tie in the medical aspects as well. I was young, but I could never forget hearing about my grandmother’s repeated diagnoses and her dread for chemotherapy sessions. She was admitted to the hospital so often that even though hospitals terrified me as a child.
I slowly became numb to the eeriness of the sterile white halls. Seeing as I wanted this to tell the story from start to finish, I included pieces illustrating the medical horror of it, ranging from a mammogram to the menacing bottles of chemotherapy medicine to a detailed hospital room that I knew would give my younger self the chills.
As the year went on, I debated a lot about how I was going to end this story. Should I give my art the happy ending that my grandmother sadly never got? Or should I stick to the truth and tell it as it happened?
My classmates rallied for a happy ending. They spent the year calling my concentration “sad” and “depressing.” I couldn’t even argue with them because that’s exactly what it was.
However, in order for my art to have the impact on others that I wanted it to. In order for me to feel as if I told the true story I set out to tell, I knew I had to give my concentration the sad ending it deserved. I wanted this final piece to remind everyone that breast cancer awareness shouldn’t end in October. Every single fighter deserves to be loved and remembered, and every month should be treated as if it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This disease doesn’t leave its victims on November 1st, so why should we?
This decision to dedicate my AP Studio Art portfolio opened my eyes. Prior to the project, I don’t think I really realized how much of an impact growing up so close to breast cancer had on me. As it turned out, I had a lot of deeply-seeded memories that saw light over the course of my senior year.
However, what truly made me know I had accomplished my goal of giving my grandmother’s story justice was the response I received especially from my family. Given the fact that I had kept the project a well-hidden secret, when I finally showed it to them, I saw my family cry and then smile with pride. They understood this tragic story in the same way that I did, and their reactions confirmed what I’d hoped they would: that I told a beautifully sad story in the most meaningful way I could, and that wherever she was, my grandmother was proud of me.