Monday, August 10, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 23

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 3rd, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 31

Artists fighting cancer find new meaning in their own work through art therapy

By Rebecca Rose

When a doctor told Tonya Schultz she would have to have her arm amputated to fight the cancer slowly creeping through her body, she was determined to find another solution.

When Rebecca Gomez was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to her art as a way of coping with the stress and fear. She said she studied color therapy and symbology and possible connections and meanings in the colors she was using in her paintings.

"[They] told me we don't have any other treatments, we need to amputate," she said. "That's when I said, 'No, I don't want to do that.'"

In 1996, Schultz went to see a doctor about an uncomfortable lump on her elbow. It was diagnosed to be liposarcoma. Since then, she has been fighting to keep her appendage, visiting a series of doctors and trying different treatments and surgeries. Every time she hears a doctor suggest amputation, she works to find another treatment to buy her more time.

Schultz had a strong reason to not want to lose her arm. She's an artist with a thriving following of fans who admire the bold and cheerful work she creates. A member of the Lompoc Valley Art Association, she's often featured at the Cypress Gallery or other local galleries and businesses. Schultz is also a marriage and family counselor and the author of the book You Can Balance Your Life.

When she learned of her diagnosis, Schultz did what so many people who find themselves facing cancer and other traumatic events do–she turned to art, the very thing she had devoted so much of her life to. 

"I think much of my abstract work has a lot of that time in it," Schultz said. "It's me completely losing myself in something that's joyful. My mantra is love and beauty. It's special for me when I look at something I've painted and it feels beautiful."

Artist Rebecca Gomez has spent nearly 20 years fighting cancer. She said paintings such as this one supported her recovery process.

She said her artwork has helped her deal with a lot of the anxiety that came with the initial diagnosis and subsequent setbacks. There are many paintings she can point to that came as a result of working through her emotions during that time. 

Art therapy is a recognized form of psychotherapy, one that allows for self-expression after a diagnosis. For people who have never explored art, the therapy can be a beneficial way to find new outlets of communication and expression, or simply give them a meaningful respite from the chaos and anxiety of dealing with their illness.

"There's something about the creative process," Schultz said. "I think you can lose your worry and lose your anxiety. You engage totally, even with just a sketchpad and a pencil. It doesn't matter if you can draw or not. You forget about you."

For artists whose lifetime passion is drawing, painting, or sculpture, their personal art takes on a whole new meaning when faced with a life-threatening illness such as cancer. Some artists find new ways to use their art and others learn more about themselves and the work they've spent their entire lives creating.

Art versus illness

Art therapy isn't just about painting and drawing. It's a recognized therapeutic treatment method, practiced and taught by accredited psychotherapists around the world. The Art Therapy Credentials Board defines it as "art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process."

Art therapy began in the 1940s, when British artist Adrian Hill first coined the term after recuperating from a long bout of tuberculosis. He wrote in his 1945 book Art Versus Illness that  "I ... sought to express my personal reactions to the unreality of my existence." Hill slowly began to introduce art to other patients, and the practice soon spread from there.

Through paintings such as Set Free, artist Tonya Schultz said she is able to lose herself and cope with anxiety and stress following a 1996 cancer diagnosis.

Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, ATR, is a licensed psychotherapist trained in art therapy. She was diagnosed with melanoma when she was 21 and was part of a small art therapy group while a patient at MD Anderson hospital in Houston. She now runs Create Your Life Studio in Santa Barbara, where she offers art therapy individually or in groups, workshops, and other retreats focused on art and healing. 

"The idea is that you combine the therapeutic, deliberate use of art-making with traditional psychotherapy," Scott-Hudson said. "It's not merely making art. Making an art can be therapeutic, but art therapy actually requires a therapist who has been educated and trained in psychotherapy and in art."

The medium of art and the artistic process is used to help clients manage anxiety, better understand themselves, and tap into emotions they may not be able to verbalize initially, Scott-Hudson said. 

A cancer diagnosis is a form of trauma, which is primarily stored as images in the brain, Scott-Hudson explained. A traumatic event such as a cancer diagnosis can cause the "fight or flight" instinct to kick in. It's difficult to verbalize from that state because human beings aren't biologically hardwired to respond to trauma in that way, she said.

"If you were to touch a hot stove, your body doesn't want you to think about [errands or social engagements]," Scott-Hudson said. "It wants you to move your hand away and get away from danger. When you are sick or you have a life-challenging illness, you are experiencing a life threat. Your body will go to keeping you safe ... it won't go to talking about the feelings. That is to keep you safe."

Human beings deal with the threat of death in a primal way, in the primitive part of the brain, Scott-Hudson explained, where those traumatic images are stored. In art therapy, clients work toward being able to talk about their feelings and understand them better by creating images of their own.

"For cancer patients in particular, often times they are taking care of everybody else's feelings," she said. "How their sickness is impacting their family ... they are looking out for everybody else."

Art therapy is a way for patients to examine how they really are, outside of the requisite niceties of maintaining a positive exterior. Patients often feel obliged to say, "I'm fine," when asked how they are doing, filtering out their emotions into polite words. 

The reason art therapy can be helpful, Scott-Hudson explained, is that it introduces a new language patients aren't trained to be presentational in.

"Most art therapy clients don't necessarily have an artist's background," she said. "So it becomes a way for ... non-verbalized experiences to be translated and externalized, so their internal experience can be visually translated in way that may even be surprising to them."

Artists who dip their toes into practices associated with art therapy invoke a kind of "physician heal thyself" moment, Scott-Hudson said, as they begin to use their own tools to deal with the sustained trauma of a serious diagnosis, coupled with the anxiety or depression that often accompanies it.

For those trained in the language of art, the challenge is not necessarily about breaking through the internal barrier. Many are accustomed to tapping into long-lost emotions or memories–skilled at translating visceral feelings into visual experiences. The challenge for an artist faced with cancer often means re-examining their work in a new way, gaining unforeseen benefits.

The colors of survival

In the Santa Ynez Valley arts community, everyone knows Rebecca Gomez

In 2001, a doctor told artist Tonya Schultz she would have to lose her right arm following a cancer diagnosis. Since then, she’s had numerous treatments and surgeries and began to teach herself how to paint with her other arm.

Gomez is an accomplished painter who has spent the last 15 years devoted to helping the arts grow and thrive on the Central Coast. Her work has been featured in more than 60 shows locally, and she has served on the boards of numerous museums and arts organizations, including the Art Committee for the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art. Anyone who meets her immediately discovers how deeply passionate she is about the art she creates. 

"For me, the magic of the process of making art has been that I may come to the blank canvas or paper with all kinds of goals or a picture in mind," she said. "But when I get into it ... my ego goes away and it seems like what's coming through me onto the paper is magic."

There's something else about her that many who enjoy her work don't know: Gomez is also a cancer survivor. In 2000, Gomez was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer, which was discovered during a colonoscopy. She has spent the better part of the last 20 years battling it as well other types of deadly cancer. 

"I had colon resection surgery," she said. "I had chemotherapy for about six or eight  months altogether. And I thought I was doing good–all the tests were good. But they did a colonoscopy a year after the original surgery and discovered that I had a recurrence."

She had to have a second resection surgery in 2001. Gomez said she felt lucky at the time because it had not spread to anywhere else in her body. She had successfully been cured of the colon cancer.

But it was a short-lived victory.

"In May of 2005 I discovered I had breast cancer," Gomez said. "I had part of my breast removed and had some chemotherapy."

The treatment came with a warning: Because of her previous chemotherapy, she might experience issues from the lasting effects the last round left in her body. A few treatments in to her sessions to combat the breast cancer, Gomez went into septic shock.

She was given a 50 percent chance of recovery.

"After I healed up, I had radiation therapy," Gomez said. "It seems so far to have been effective. No one declares breast cancer 'cured.'"

Through it all, Gomez began to see her art, a lifetime passion and her livelihood, in a new light. It became a form of healing for her.

While she was being treated at a cancer center, an integrative medicine physician who knew nothing of Gomez's art background suggested she start a creative pursuit.

"I said, 'Well, I'd love to,'" Gomez said. "But I wasn't sure how to proceed with it at the time. I was used to making art on 4-foot canvases and I just didn't have the energy for that anymore." 

Her doctor encouraged Gomez to refocus her work into smaller elements such as sketches, to create ideas for larger projects in the future, or anything that she could draw or paint from a chair or her bed.

Art works
To find an accredited and licensed art therapist, visit the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) online at

"Basically, unless I was truly disabled from chemotherapy or the weeks after surgery, I went on doing art," she said. "I just changed it to doing small works with limited physical demands. But I still was doing it."

Gomez is primarily an abstract artist who has studied color theory throughout history and in different cultures, as well as symbology. She said in many different cultures, red is commonly associated with feeling, such as pain and suffering or physical illness. Blue is related to thinking, yellow is related to intuition, and green is sensation such as smell and touch. 

"I found that fascinating," she said. "It felt in a way like I was exploring something ... there seemed to be so much truth in that. I was doing this work, playing around with these colors, looking at myself and other people, and expressing what was going on all through these color relationships."

'Carry the weight'

Today, Schultz paints with both hands, training herself to use her left hand more and more as she faces the the strong possibility that she may finally lose her right arm. She's been watching YouTube videos of other amputees, learning how they handle day-to-day tasks.

"Ever since the beginning, when they talked about amputation, I've been preparing myself," she said. "There's no question I can do it. Do I like it? No. But there we are."

She said she's been lucky that the liposarcoma has remained isolated in her arm and hasn't spread to the rest of her body. Schultz is facing the outcome with an unwavering positivity, the kind that radiates through the bright and lighthearted paintings she creates. 

"People paint with their toes, their teeth," she said. "The rest of me is just wonderful. I just have this one little issue." 

Gomez said she always knew art was about more than just the physical act of making paintings. It is a contemplative practice much like meditation, which can invite a transcendent state. 

The process, Gomez pointed out, helps patients such as her to not let their cancer diagnosis define them.

"I think that art helps one get to know their center," Gomez said. "You can begin to see cancer not as your central self. You can learn to see it as a weight that you have to carry or a difficult path to walk. You learn that you can carry the weight and still have a life." 

Contact Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose at

Weekly Poll
What do you think of the Lompoc prison facilities' ways of mitigating the spread of COVID-19?

Definitely cruel and unusual—more people should have received home confinement.
It was certainly inhumane; inmates couldn't even shower for almost two weeks.
It was not great but was typical of our current institutions.
I think it was adequate given the situation.

| Poll Results

My 805 Tix - Tickets to upcoming events