The Cancer Chronicles

by guest blogger Wendy Denton

Artist Wendy Denton writes about the difficult experience of dealing with a terminal illness. Her work captures the emotional process and provides a starting point for conversations.


"We Have Pancreatic Cancer" photograph by Wendy Denton

“We Have Pancreatic Cancer” photograph by Wendy Denton


Everyone knows someone with cancer. A parent. A husband or wife. A child. A coworker or a friend. And yet so often we do not talk with each other about cancer. We don’t examine out loud the effects on our lives.

When my husband Ken was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we pledged to be conscious and awake throughout the journey together. We decided to use our art to help us process the twists and turns of this journey. Through images, we captured feelings, ideas, sadness, humor, and outright fun along the way.

The result is “The Cancer Chronicles,” a 23-piece exhibit of 24” X 32” images with a short text for each image. Our hope is to inspire others to be creative, talk about the experience of cancer more openly, and even have moments of grace beyond the bodily bother of symptoms. Our project is threefold:

  • We want a rich form of expression to process our experience.
  • We want to impress upon other artists the value of dealing artistically with painful or difficult life events.
  • We want to provide a platform for others dealing with cancer or other illnesses to bring up their fears, ideas, uncertainties, etc. During a gallery show when someone didn’t like an image, I could hear them begin conversations and talk out loud – sometimes for the first time—about how the image made them feel.

Because we were both photographers, and Ken had years of experience in community theater, our course was set. From the very beginning, doctors and medical staff learned to tolerate the presence of cameras in all phases of Ken’s treatment. In one image, the oncologist and her staff stand in a line holding different shoes. This was Ken’s idea and he called it “Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop.”


"Missing Words" photography by Wendy Denton

“Missing Words” photography by Wendy Denton


This is the first image in the series: “Missing Words.” In the oncologist’s office, hearing the news, the mind tunes in and out. Now focusing on what the doctor is saying. Now attention sliding sideways to random thoughts: “Did I put gas in the car French fries sound good What about my students…” Many people said it took them multiple visits to actually get what the doctor was saying.


"The Illusion of Permanence" photograph by Wendy Denton

“The Illusion of Permanence” photograph by Wendy Denton


In dealing with a terminal illness and actually being present, people begin to question what it means to be here, what permanence means, what’s real and not real. I discovered a wonderful warehouse called Mannequin Madness and photographed countless mannequins, many of them rather battered or beat up. This image of Ken shows him surrounded by male mannequins made to look like real humans that would outlast time, right? Ken’s “Rental” sign speaks to this illusion of the permanent human body.


"Letting Go" photograph by Wendy Denton

“Letting Go” photograph by Wendy Denton


Throughout the cancer process we deal with letting go of things: material things, relationships, self-concepts and beliefs. This image shows Ken walking up a hill, with his suitcase springing open and the contents falling out. What a great opportunity for conversation! In the exhibit of Cancer Chronicles, I listened to a family discussing what each of them would let go. Even the kids got into the discussion. This family experienced an honest opening to each other as they grappled with such a difficult concept. One said, “I would gladly let go of my stupid job,” and they all laughed. A teenager said, “I would let go of caring so much about what others think of me,” as the family members looked at each and nodded in understanding.

In terms of our personal goal to deal visually with our own feelings, the process of creating artistic images was incredibly successful, more that we imagined at the beginning. I so encourage other artists to use their creativity to deal with the difficult issues around terminal illness and other life situations. It is healing for the artist and at the same time, offers a focal point for others to express and think about important issues.

Some people have asked if this series exploits Ken and his situation. All I can say is, about three days before Ken died, he turned to me and whispered, “Isn’t it time for another picture?”


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