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Art As A Conversation About Cancer With 'Anyone Who Will Listen'

Art, in its essence, is just another way to tell a story, a way for humans to make meaning out of their experiences. At Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Annie Brewster, a Boston internist and CommonHealth contributor who uses storytelling in a therapeutic context, artists are invited to tell their unique stories.

Here, Dennis Svoronos, a Boston-based sculptor who describes his work as existing "between art and engineering," reflects on his cancer as a force for creativity and social engagement.

By Dennis Svoronos

In September of 2009 — at 26 years of age — I was diagnosed with cancer after experiencing the first of many seizures. Of all the trials I could imagine that lay ahead, I never thought most of them would be exercises in recollection.

Patient name? Dennis Svoronos (thankfully I can always get this one)

Date of birth? 3/8/83 (a palindrome, helps to keep it easy)

Occupation? Artist (maybe not my parents first choice)

Approximate date of last surgery? 11/09 (Who forgets their first brain surgery)

Existing medical conditions? Anaplastic Astrocytoma (a cancerous brain tumor)

Repeat daily, for years.

"Just in Case" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)
"Just in Case" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)

As time progressed; I remember those waiting rooms — questions and ID tags — much more than the operating theatre and injections; trauma is kind of like that.

However, they made me feel intrinsically linked to my disease. What was I, without these suffixes of sickness to identify with? Somehow, all my other unique and admirable qualities were set aside for the identifier of ‘cancer patient’.

It’s easy to resign to the belief that those forms and wristbands define your life, mere statistics, data — you and your cancer. Just as painless is to ignore the process completely, pretending your exams and operations are the bad dreams of another person, your ‘real life’ goes on unaffected.

Either way, it seems you’re not to talk openly about cancer, and it is difficult for most; patients, family and doctors alike. My initial sense was, it would be easier for me — and more comfortable for others — to keep off the topic. Sickness is a surprisingly taboo subject in a very liberal culture.

The artist in me, however, couldn’t stop questioning why we hide from the discussion.

"Personified" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)
"Personified" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)

Over the course of my treatment and the years to follow, the entirety of my work became a continuous, very uncomfortable, conversation about my disease with anyone that would listen.

In doing so, I freed myself from the fear and shame that I felt initially upon my diagnosis. It allowed me to speak honestly to an audience on an issue I was passionate about and to relate to others on a level beyond the initial stigma of sickness.

I became a proud patient. My work wasn’t about the ‘battle’, ‘fight’ or being a ‘survivor’; the words of conflict I was trying to avoid. The art became focused on the subtle, sincere and even sarcastic aspects of the life-changing experience I was going through. I wasn’t interested in discussing my struggle with cancer; I wanted to embrace the insight it gave me.

Artist Dennis Svoronos
Artist Dennis Svoronos

In January of 2014, I exhibited a solo show of this work at the Boston Sculptors Gallery (486 Harrison Ave. Boston). In the month that followed, I was able to engage with patients and the public in ways I was never able to before. My show became a safe space for anyone to talk about this difficult subject. In doing so, stories were shared, wisdom was gained and many tears — of joy and woe — were shed. To all who came, I sought to impart a sense of community and empathy they didn’t enter with. I learned, as a patient, I need to speak about my experience with the ‘healthy’ world, regardless of stigma or discrimination. My ultimate healing came through delightful conversations about a horrible problem.

A version of this piece first appeared at Health Story Collaborative.

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