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The Art of Survival

The Art of Survival

Sequim artist Joan Bowman took her experience with a rare and deadly type of breast cancer and made art out of it.

Two pairs of empty running shoes--Bowman's and her 2-year-old granddaughter's, photographed side-by-side the night before a breast-cancer fundraising run--became "Generations Racing for the Cure."

A series of five prints, including "Chemotherapy," reflect her experience of cancer treatment.

Most dramatically, Bowman took the blue radiation cradle--used during treatments to make sure the patient is positioned exactly in the right place under the X-ray machine--and turned it into a piece titled "Triumphant."

Bowman's work has toured the Northwest and hung in the nation's capital as part of "Innervisions," an exhibition that showcases the art of women with breast cancer. Bowman was introduced to Innervisions by her oncologist, Dr. Julie Gralow, one of the group's founders.

"I made the art pieces while I was in treatment," Bowman, now 64, remembers. "I don't know what I would have done without Innervisions. It was like a support group."

Getting the news

It was 1996, and Bowman and her husband Bob had just moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Sequim, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, when Bowman realized she had a problem with her breast that she could no longer ignore.

Bowman had been aware of the swelling and redness for months. But she was busy with the move, and Bob was traveling back and forth to Brazil on business. She thought she had an infection. And, new to town, she didn't have a local doctor. Finally, she made an appointment at the University of Washington Medical Center, one of three SCCA partner organizations.

"I had a gut feeling to go there," Bowman says. "I wanted to go to the best place I could think of."

Bowman made an appointment at the Tuesday breast clinic at the medical center (now located at the SCCA outpatient clinic on Lake Union), where she was seen by Dr. Gralow and several other breast cancer specialists.

"They were instantly concerned," Bowman recalls.

The diagnosis? Inflammatory breast cancer, with a very poor prognosis. Bowman did not expect to live more than a few months.

The "Christmas card" deal

Bowman began treatment almost immediately. Her regimen included agressive chemotherapy for 30 days straight as an in-patient at the University of Washington Medical Center, followed two months later by radiation. She did not have a mastectomy, although her doctors suggested it. Nor did she have a second round of high-dose chemotherapy, which was also suggested.

"It would have been preventative," Bowman says, "but I didn't think I could make it." CT scans after treatment showed that she was cancer-free, so she went home to Sequim to build a new life and art business with Bob.

"Joan followed our recommendations and got very aggressive therapy," says Dr. Gralow. "When we were done with treatment, I talked about how we should follow her, … [and she said] frequent scans and doctor's visits would make her anxious, and she didn't want that."

Dr. Gralow continues, "So we made a deal: She'd call me and come to see me if she had any problems or symptoms, but we wouldn't schedule any routine return appointments or scans. She agreed to send me a yearly Christmas card to let me know she was OK, which she has done every year since. I look forward to those Christmas cards every year."

A new life in Sequim

The Bowmans' home in Sequim is filled with Joan's art, starting with the stained-glass panels in the front door. Joan and Bob work well as a team: Bob built the door that frames Joan's glass. She continues to make prints and three-dimensional "spirit figures."

A workshop out back houses the business. The Bowman Shop & Studio produces "products of artistic value and practical use," including hardwood cutting boards, cribbage boards and an adaptation of an Alaskan cutting tool called an ulu, that comes with a cutting trough to keep food from slipping away. A bonus: the ulu can be used one-handed.

The Bowmans sell their products at a Saturday market in Sequim, and they come to Seattle once or twice a year to exhibit at the Best of the Northwest show.

What she liked

Bowman has nothing but praise for her oncologist, Dr. Gralow. "She's great," Bowman says, "very honest and truthful. She didn't mince any words--she knew I had a battle on my hands. But she was also very warm and kind."

She appreciates the care she received as an in-patient at the University of Washington Medical Center. While hospitalized, Bowman received an alternative healing therapy called "Therapeutic Touch." She says, "They lay their hands above you, and go around the bed and your body to balance the energy forces. I believed in it--it did help." She is grateful, she says, that the UWMC is open to this kind of alternative practice for its patients.

And Bowman praised her doctors' flexibility in making arrangements for her to receive some of her chemotherapy in Bremerton at Olympic Hematology & Oncology Associates, through an arrangement with her doctors at UW Medicine, to save the long drive to Seattle. "My doctor in Bremerton was Dr. Joe Johnson," she says. "He was an important part of my wellness, and a mentor."

"I feel thankful," she says, "for every day."

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