A kaleidoscope of colors transforms the Siteman Cancer Center as B.J. Cokley and 12 other kids — dressed head-to-toe in surgical attire — create silk head wraps for their mothers and grandmothers with breast cancer.
The volunteer staff of the Arts as Healing program proudly overlooks the kids as they huddle together to blow colorful bubbles of paint that create vibrant bursts of abstract color onto the fabric.
The art program, recently developed by Vicki L. Friedman, director of Medical Photography, Illustration and Computer Graphics (MedPIC) at the School of Medicine, offers children the opportunity to take an active, artistic role in the healing process while providing a group support network.
With the support of the MedPIC staff, Friedman recently created the project out of her desire to have her small children more involved with her fight against breast cancer 19 years ago.
To help meet the support needs of kids with family members who have breast cancer, Friedman, in collaboration with the School of Medicine and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation, applied for and received a $20,000 grant from the Trio Foundation for Siteman’s Arts as Healing program.
“We wanted to develop artistic projects for kids that encouraged both team spirit and personal self-expression as part of the healing process,” says Friedman, who’s worked at the University for 30 years.
Four years ago, Beth Bryson was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her treatment program included chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy — an intensive therapy regimen that took a heavy toll on her family.
Just days before she was set to have reconstructive surgery, a bad feeling set in — she knew the cancer was back.
When Bryson got the devastating news that the cancer had spread to her bones and spine, it wasn’t her life she was most concerned about — it was the effect the disease would have on her 5-year-old son, B.J.
After Bryson was rushed by ambulance to the emergency department in severe pain, B.J.’s fear of losing his mom was too much for Bryson to take.
“He was terrified I was never going to come home,” she says. That night she knew she had to get her son some support.
“He needs to know that he’s not the only kid who has a parent who is going through this,” she says. “He needs to know he’s not alone.”
Last month, Bryson enrolled B.J. in the Siteman Cancer Center’s HUGS (Help Us Give Support) program, a support group for children 4-12 with family members who have breast cancer.
B.J. says he couldn’t wait to make a scarf for his mom at the March 21 HUGS meeting, sponsored by Arts as Healing.
“I am so excited that I’ve made something for my mama,” B.J. says as he proudly ties a bow around the colorful scarf he just created for his mom.
“I hope this makes her feel better.”
In addition to making his mom a beautiful head wrap, B.J. has also made a lot of friends — ones that are going through the same difficult situation as he is.
B.J. has befriended Sam, Dylan and Ashley Mopkins, whose mom, April Villars, has also battled breast cancer.
“This is such a wonderful outlet for my children to do something fun together as a family,” says Villars, who is now cancer-free.
“When I was sick, it was hard for us to do things together as a family. That aspect of our lives was really broken up. This program offers us a chance to be together as a family — and most importantly, it allows all of us to be a part of the healing process.”
And that’s exactly what Friedman intended when she and the MedPIC staff developed the Arts as Healing program.
“Our office creates art for the School of Medicine from a scientific and research perspective,” she says, “but this program gives us a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the community and touch patients’ lives.”