Shining a light on what happens after radiation
THE SANTA CLARA
October 1, 2015
Twenty-six years ago, Women’s and Gender Studies Associate Professor Laura Ellingson beat bone cancer. On the third floor of the university library, her and Art Professor Renee Billingslea’s new exhibit, “Voicing Late Effects: Stories of Long-Term Cancer Survivorship,” showcases the experiences of fellow survivors dealing with the aftermath of their treatment.
“Most people think about the horrible things that happen to you when you have cancer, like chemotherapy and radiation and surgery,” Ellingson said. “It is awful. But what I was not prepared for, and what most people are not prepared for, was that people who survive suffer from late effects of treatment.”
These late effects can take the form of lung and liver problems, infertility, depression and even more cancer from previous radiation treatments. For her research, Dr. Ellingson documented the daily lives of survivors in photographs for a month. Ellingson has written her research into soon-to-be-published academic articles, but wanted to incorporate an artistic element into her work as well.
“I think having artistic representations of research doesn’t in any way detract from the quality of the science I conduct,” Ellingson said. “I think it actually adds to it. That’s why I wanted to collaborate with someone like Renee, who already had that incredible talent to compliment my strengths.”
The stories of the survivors inspired Billingslea to contrast the comfort of home with the starkness of treatment centers, arranging intimate pieces onto clinical privacy screens. The exhibit’s pieces are stitched together and hung from the metal frames, give the impression of impersonal privacy in a doctor’s office. The thread bonding the pieces together represents the fragility of a cancer survivor’s life. The plastic symbolizes the transparent look into the inner thoughts of a cancer survivor. Embedded in the thread and plastic are pictures, locks of hair, pills and other representations of what the cancer survivors must deal with.
Ellingson brought Billingslea onboard for the project that would take over two years to complete. The two swapped ideas as the art took shape and they chose portable medical privacy screens as the framework of the piece to make sure the installation could travel to and from medical conferences.
“It’s been very exciting because I love the idea of combining art with the sciences,” Billingslea said. “I hope visitors take away a new awareness and reflection of what cancer survivor’s deal with on a daily basis.”
In the “waiting room” area of the exhibit, there are display cases containing the materials the artists used to create the pieces and the medication former patients need in their struggle to survive. There is a scrapbook in the waiting area that adds on the theme of thread, featuring short biographies on the participants as well as personal pictures and quotes that testify to the immense spirit of these remarkable people.
“As a researcher, I really love the exhibit because it means we have translated very academic style presentation into a really engaging form that anyone can engage with,” Ellingson said. “As a cancer survivor, what I really love is that Renee’s vision so powerfully tells a story that resonates with my personal experience. You’ll hear stories about people having cancer, but you almost never hear about what happens to us afterward.”
Contact Perla Luna at pluna@scu.