day 249: art, health and putting my tumor in a box

Cancer challenges a lot of your comfort zones.

The other night we were watching Baring it All, the documentary about the SCAR Project and the fact that the women being photographed were comfortable showing their bodies was being discussed. Irene turned to me and remarked that this was not really surprising, because by the time you’ve gone through treatment you’ve shown your body, your breasts, to many people on many occasions.

In striving for a voice in advocacy I have also been moving outside my comfort zone too, touching on personal matters as I tell and share my story. Being photographed for the SCAR Project: Male Breast Cancer recently was a great honor, something that I hope will have impact and another experience that stretched me. Not the being photographed, really, but the idea that ultimately an image of me will be public.

Well, I found another opportunity to practice extroversion too!

Let me take a small step back: soon after my diagnosis, I decided to challenge myself with some new learning. I had wanted to do some electronics for a while, and also was getting interested in the new field of 3-D printing. Wired ran a cover with Makerbot’s consumer printer in October of last year, which coupled with a reinforced feeling of “what am I waiting for” that is pretty common after you are diagnosed with cancer, made me take the plunge. I spent some months learning the basics of Arduino electronics. My printer arrived in January and I learned how to use it. Really fun stuff.

During these weeks, as I was getting my chemo, then my surgery and now radiation I began to perceive this as a journey. I had seen my wife go through it 5 years ago, and here I was doing it pretty much the same. The urge to tell that story, with its distinct phases, grew. I wanted to capture the feeling that you get a lot of information that you have to somehow integrate. And above all, I somehow wanted to represent the cancer as an external entity that I could see, as it was eliminated by the therapy and that I could therefore somehow hope to control (ha!). So I decided to make a thing. It would be a box that you could dimly see inside, where a tumor was, and we would hit the tumor with all we had and it would go out. I would make it for myself, as a form of therapy.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks back, when I was well underway with the project and was reminded of the annual faculty art exhibition that our Faculty Health Program at MD Anderson puts on. This event is part of a rich program of events that support the well being of our physicians and scientists. What if I showed this piece there? Most of the art at the show is visual, although writing is also well represented, and while all of it is by cancer professionals, next to none is about cancer. Well I gave my introvert a nudge and submitted it, and showed it.

I have to say I was honestly surprised that it resonated strongly for some of the people who viewed it. I think I caught the tiniest glimpse of what an artist must feel when their work connects with others. I have been encouraged by my colleagues to share it more widely, and specifically to make a video. Gulp. So here it is.

Tumor in a Box from Oliver Bogler on Vimeo.

A mixed media piece I made about my experience with cancer.

7 thoughts on “day 249: art, health and putting my tumor in a box

  1. Oliver, your art has connected with me and my experience! The quick build-up of information overload, the normal life (playing ball with one’s son) that continues but is faint and in the margins of experiences, and then eventually, the quieting of the din to something more easily understood and organized. This is powerful!

    As an extrovert and blog buddy, I have to say that I am very proud of you! What you are doing takes a lot of courage and a passion to help. And did you really work full time throughout your treatment? It sounded like a lot of the audio voices (I recognized Dr. Giordano’s voice) were discussing your case but then some of it did not.

    Your wife is right that the constant scrutiny, poking, prodding, and photo-taking involved in breast cancer treatment does give a lot of women a different view of their bodies. I had the same experience with pregnancy and childbirth. Although extroverted, I have a history of being pretty physically modest when it comes to revealing cleavage. Childbirth and middle-age made me a bit more comfortable and actually be able to wear v-neck t-shirts and dresses! Watch out, I am a wild woman!

    So, when it comes to getting mammograms and all of the other vulnerable positions we find ourselves in while assessed and treated for breast cancer, my attitude was, “I’ve given birth, just do what you need to do.”

    I don’t know if this is the same for your wife, but I also found that the side of my chest on which I had my mastectomy has very different meaning to me now. After the mastectomy, it was like a foreign landscape, and combined with my intellectual curiosity and the lack of sensation, it seemed like a disconnected area, not part of my body. I still feel this way even with after very realistic reconstruction using my own tissue. My reconstructed breast looks and feels to the touch like a real breast. And unlike the tissue expander, I am not always aware of it. But it’s just not the same so I could see how women might get over their inhibitions to pose for the Scar Project.

    I am so impressed with all that you are doing on top of dealing with cancer, being a husband and father, and working what must be a very demanding job. I’m glad that in reaching out to help others, you are finding opportunities for positive personal growth.


  2. Wonderful.. I always felt that when I was diagnosed with cancer that I just had to hand my body over.. At times I found it very embarrassing but what choice do you have but just get through it..

  3. Your piece is extremely powerful – it’s left me a bit stunned and overwhelmed- very moving – very brave. Congratulations.

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