More Than a Cluster of Cells
How my pathologist helped me regain my confidence and self-worth, and confront my cancer
Ray Paul |
I am a 53-year-old artist, musician and science enthusiast with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master’s in painting. I am also a sarcoma survivor.
I first noticed a rapidly enlarging lump protruding from my left flank in the spring of 2011. A urologist friend of mine agreed to remove it in his office, believing it to be a lipoma, but he quickly realized it was something more sinister. Marilyn Bui at Moffitt Cancer Center confirmed a diagnosis of high-grade myxofibrosarcoma, for which my primary oncologist gave me a prognosis of “better than a coin flip.” Since then, I’ve had metastases and recurrences, repeated resections, chemotherapy, and several rounds of radiation therapy including participation in a clinical trial for high-risk soft tissue sarcomas (1) – and follow-up is still ongoing.
Before my experience, I had been aware of the pathologist’s vital role in diagnosis and was able to read pathology reports, but I’d had no direct interactions with my own pathologists. In 2013, when my cancer returned for the third time, I was at my lowest point – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I had abandoned my art and was simply going through the motions of life. A concerned friend suggested I find a way to combine my artwork and cancer. Together, he and I came up with the idea of having images of my cancer cells printed onto canvas, serving as a substrate for my painterly expression. Marilyn graciously invited me to her lab to view my pathology slides and provided me with digital images of the tumor histology. The resulting paintings were exhibited in The Healing Arts Gallery at Moffitt Cancer Center in 2014 and also appear in “The Healing Art of Pathology.” Why did this matter so much to me? I envision my art to be a persistent, visual manifestation of the battle raging within, and a powerful testament to the beauty and healing powers of hope. It was cathartic and inspirational for me to be able to attack my cancer directly, through the act of frenetically and meticulously painting over the printed images of my cancer cells.
The importance of this interaction with my pathologist can’t be overstated. Marilyn stepped out of the shadows of the lab, put a face to pathology’s mysterious workings, and made me realize that pathologists are an integral part of the patient care team. My interaction with her helped me regain my confidence and self-worth by directly confronting my cancer through art and collaboration. It helped me, a devastated cancer patient, return to life as a productive artist. And it gave me a major boost of confidence to know that such brilliant and dedicated professionals cared about me as a person – that I was more than just a cluster of cells gone haywire.
Healthcare services should never discourage contact between pathologists and patients. That would deny the patient the emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits of direct interaction – and for me, at least, that relationship has been invaluable. To other patients, I would say: educate yourselves on the vital role of pathology and pathologists. Know that they are an integral part of the team fighting for you. Go to the lab, view the histological slides, and get to know your own pathologists. You will find, as I have, that they are caring human beings, dedicated to helping the patient win the battle and hopefully, one day, finding a cure.
- ClinicalTrials.gov, “Radiation therapy and intratumoral autologous dendritic cells in soft tissue sarcomas (STS)”, (2016). Available at: bit.ly/2dBfyWi. Accessed October 2, 2016.
Ray Paul is an artist, musician, science enthusiast and sarcoma survivor. His art related to his experience with cancer is included in the book The Healing Art of Pathology.