Chipping away one day at a time


When faced with a challenge, we can retreat and hope for the best or we can use every available tool to embrace the new situation and move forward. What may seem overwhelming at first becomes achievable when we seek the support and guidance of others.

The strangers first came together in a comfortable living room setting at Wellspring, Halton-Peel, to learn each others’ names and then their stories – stories of fear, pain, strength and courage in the face of their own diagnosis or that of a loved one whose life has been forever changed by cancer.

For the past eight years, patients, families, friends and care providers have been invited to share their stories through Arts in Medicine Tile Tales workshops offered at The Credit Valley Hospital (CVH). The program has become one of the cornerstones of CVH’s theme of healing and hope, with more than 100 tile stories adorning the walls of The Carlo Fidani Peel Regional Cancer Centre – home to the largest collection of Tile Tales in Canada.

Dr. Marilyn Hundleby, clinical psychologist and founder of the Arts in Medicine program at The Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton has facilitated the workshops at CVH. In October 2008, she was invited to offer the next generation of the Arts in Medicine program – a soapstone bear-carving workshop. Twenty-five participants came together for a sharing session on the Friday evening allowing the group to get to know one another and to create the foundation they would build upon the next day.

Each participant left the evening with a copy of Cancer and the Art of Healing, a coffee table book co-authored by Dr. Hundleby. The colourful pages contain inspiring stories and art work created by patients, family members and health-care professionals from across Canada, demonstrating the creativity we all have inside. Many of the creations in the book came from CVH workshops. As participants thumbed through the book they could see how others have expressed their experience of cancer and how they have changed their perspective through the process of creating. Creativity can be a powerful resource whenever we are faced with life’s challenges, particularly when there are no words to adequately express our intense thoughts and feelings.

Starting early on Saturday morning in The Credit Valley Hospital’s main lobby, the group gathered with familiar hugs as though they’d known each other for years. Ready to embrace the challenge at hand, they took their places with eager anticipation to carve a roughly cut stone; to watch a shape and colour emerge and to shape a bear which embodied their own unique experiences with cancer.

Laura Gioffre sat in the middle of the table, flanked by her eldest son Maurizio on one side, with her second son Fabio and youngest son Claudio on the other. Equipped with saws, rasps and files, they set to work to carve a bear shaped by the loss of her husband and their father, Bruno Gioffre, a little more than one year ago. Together, they slowly settled into the task at hand.

Sitting in her living room a few short weeks later, Laura glances fondly at the circle of four finished, polished bears and reflects on the experience – on what it meant for her and Bruno’s sons to create these bears together. “The process of carving took all day and it was emotionally draining; it’s a lot like grieving. It’s a long road but working side by side, we did it together and helped each other through,” she says. Laura does not believe that traditional therapy works for everyone. When she thinks of that day, of what they shared and when she looks at the four beautiful bears that stand together now in her home, she sees strength – the strength to carry on.

Laura says that the process allowed them to step outside of their pain and to focus on just one thing – carving their bears, and letting the rest fade to the background – even if only for a short time. “Using our hands, we worked through it, letting the pain slip through our fingers as we watched something else emerge,” she says.

Laura sensed there had been something missing in her life. While she was carving, she rested her bear down for a moment to realize she was secure and balanced, standing up on her hind quarters. She said she looked like she was praying. Her son Maurizio shared a piece he’d sawed off of his bear, wedged it between the two front paws as though she were holding a prayer book. She called their creation ‘the praying bear.’ Since then, Laura has decided that she has been yearning for a return to something spiritual in her life –something that has fallen by the wayside.

Participants remain amazed that this project became so meaningful to them. They treasure their bears because they have taken their unique shapes based on each participant’s personal journey.

When she thinks about the group working side by side on their creations, Laura observed “we were all so engaged in our individual creations; united toward one goal and finished at the same time but we all took a different road to get there.” The creative process is a lot like life that way. When cancer enters into our lives, it gives us time to take a step back – to take a breath. There is learning in everything we do and everything we experience. We need to learn to embrace new challenges because we never know when to expect the unexpected.

“Our loss is permanent; it’s not going to go away but together we are strong,” Laura says of the one-day-at-a-time approach she and her three sons have adopted to cope with their reality. “I think it’s really special that the bear symbolizes healing because that’s what they’re doing for us,” she says.