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Cancer survivors, families find relief from pain in paint

A pop-up art studio at a local hospital brings some much needed relief to cancer patients, survivors and their families.

Using painting to ease the pain of cancer

WTOP's Rachel Nania | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Regina Zellars was driving up to MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s main entrance on Tuesday morning when something unusual caught her eye: She spotted several tables covered in canvasses, paint bottles and paint brushes.

Zellars stopped to inquire about the setup, and it wasn’t long before she threw on an apron and joined the 20-plus patients, health care providers and passers-by gathered around the tables.

“When I saw them out here I said, ‘That’s what I need,’” Zellars said as she leaned over a half-painted canvas with a brush full of blue paint.

Zellars had just left her 26-year-old daughter on the second floor in the hospital’s Cancer Institute to receive treatment for skin cancer. A few minutes of mindless painting was a welcome escape.  

“I just appreciate putting my energies into this,” Zellars said.

Tuesday’s painting event was the national kickoff for PaintFest America, a campaign that travels to 50 states in 50 days to connect cancer patients, survivors and supporters to art. At each stop, participants paint on paneled canvas murals using a paint-by-numbers approach. After the two-hour session, the completed murals are donated to the host hospital.

“Our goal is really to make hospitals more cheerful, bright places for patients and staff,” said Brian McCagh, who is on the board at The Foundation for Hospital Art, the nonprofit behind the campaign.

The foundation’s Executive Director Scott Feight added, “Because if [patients] are in a place that’s depressing and white and … clinical, there’s not really a lot of hope for recovery.”

There’s no doubt the finished murals will enliven hallways, hospital rooms and other spaces dedicated to healing, but their creation also helps those fighting for their lives.

When Anna U Davis was diagnosed with multifocal invasive breast cancer in 2013, she says she was in total shock — and that quickly gave way to fear when she was faced with questions, scenarios and the unknown.

“You don’t know how bad it is,” said Davis, a Northwest D.C. resident and artist.

She struggled to find the words to describe her thoughts and feelings, so she started a drawing journal instead.

“I drew everything that I was going through. I think putting that down in images is sometimes easier than putting it in words. Not everybody wants to talk,” she said.

Dr. Maria Nunes, an attending physician at the MedStar Washington Cancer Institute and an assistant professor at Georgetown University, says for patients, art provides a brief departure from everything the disease demands and helps them remember who they were before the diagnosis.

“Cancer is such an overwhelming diagnosis that it easily takes over your existence and transforms you from a person into a patient,” she said. “Art provides you a refuge from that mindframe, and allows you to remember again that life is full of beautiful things.”

The brief painting break took Zellars’ mind away from cancer for a short while, and she hopes the final product does the same for future patients and families at the hospital.

“You know, any way that I can help other people, I think it’s important,” she said.

PaintFest America will conclude its 50-day run on Aug. 23 in New York.

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