Sisters, Cancer and the Cathartic Power of Art


Victoria Rose Martin’s work enabled me to see my sister and myself as we were and could have been, and for the first time, to rail against my loss.  I thought of summers together, sharing a bedroom, confidences, conflicts, loyalty, hilarity, love.

For many years after my little sister died of breast cancer in her 30s, I kept the card I had purchased for the birthday she never celebrated.  I would touch it sometimes where it was tucked in my underwear drawer. Occasionally I would open the card and read the message, and tears would prick, and I would miss her terribly.  Then I would regain my composure and close the drawer.

In countless similar moments across the years since her death, the ability to maintain composure has been a precious tool – a barrier against loss of control, a denial of grief, a technique for staying strong,

I’ve been perfecting composure since the call I made to a women’s cancer hotline when my sister was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer a few weeks after the birth of her third child.

Our mother had died of breast cancer, also contracted before the age of 40, and my sister’s was at least Stage III.  I wanted dispassionate information about what we would face.

The hotline volunteer was silent for a good 10 seconds, and then she said:

“How strong are you? You need to be strong for me to tell you the truth.”


Oh I am strong, but not nearly as strong as my sister – seven years my junior, a juggernaut, born with a tenacity that overwhelmed others but enabled her to accomplish just about everything she chose to do.

I have never seen a person fight so hard to live. Her remarkable husband, her daughter and two sons, (newborn and under 10 when she was diagnosed) and all her friends, surrounded her with the support and love that spreads against this despicable disease in millions of families every day.  I could do nothing but stay in control, to be as strong as possible for her in the three years that my sister fought.

It was this month all those years ago that my sister died, and in March that my own birthday falls.  It has often been a struggle for me to get through this month.

These sculptures by artist Victoria Rose Martin pierced my shield.  I took one look at Sisters – the image at the top of this post – and was demolished, then released.

There we were, my sister and I – whole, connected and innocent of despair.

No regaining composure this time, no denying grief.  I sobbed my way through an episode of cleansing memories.  I thought of summers together, sharing a bedroom, confidences, conflicts, loyalty, hilarity, love.

It is a mystery to me how art can be so personally cathartic.  But it is one of the gifts of art to connect a soul to the dominion of love or death or spiritual exaltation.

Victoria Rose Martin says her works are memories, reflections of life.

“In the small faces I can see members of my family, people I once knew, and even myself,” she says. “The figures are frequently perched on the roofs of houses where I lived as a child or in boats where they look for those who have gone.”

I am grateful that the synchronicity of my memories and Victoria Rose Martin’s exquisite work enabled me to see my sister and myself as we were and could have been, and gave me a way to rail against my loss.

PERSONAL NOTE: I wrote this 10 years ago and posted it only briefly before I took it offline. It seemed too personal for a blog focused on reporting about exhibitions and individual artists, and perhaps I was just not ready.  Now I am. 

22 replies »

  1. I too lost my sister to breast cancer on the 8 Sept this year 2013 . Your words and Victoria’s art are helping me to get through this very difficult time in my life . I have experienced such a great loss .


    • I’m glad that this post on Victoria’s works was a help. I know you understand that those of us who have lost someone close – especially a sister – feel powerfully for you.


  2. I am thankful as well for the healing properties of art, and thank you for sharing such a personal and ultimately empowering part of your own life here.


  3. What a compelling story. I, too, was diagnosed with this horrible disease….stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Horrible beyond words. As i read, I sit here with a lump in my throat, on the verge of tears, feeling her grief. But, then, she writes of the joy in her memories evoked purely & simply by a piece of art. Cathartic, indeed. As an artist, that brings me happiness.
    Thank you for such a powerful post.


  4. Yes, a beautiful post, where one understands the powerful link between art and life, and the deep necessity of artists in the world.
    Thank you,



  5. What an incredible story. I can see why you find these so touching; there is such a gentle tenderness and connection expressed in these.

    A beautiful post, both your words and Victoria’s art. Thank you.



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