Fight and Flight


The fight or flight response is a physical reaction built deep in our bodies and brains, helping us to react to a perceived harmful event or threat to survival. A rush of adrenalin courses through our veins, inducing us to grab a weapon or run like the wind.  When diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013, my fear, and desire to fight or flee the unseen foe inside me, grew day by day.  But I could neither do battle with a physical enemy, nor run away from it. Fighting cancer meant continuing on with my life as normal: overseeing my family, filming an online course, starting a new book, and carrying on holidays with a brave and cheerful face. But as a RISD professor on sabbatical, I made it my primary goal to fight back with knowledge. I started researching this new “project”… as there’s no clear roadmap when battling breast cancer. With all the information that I could learn, and with the support of my partner, friends and family, I chose to have a double mastectomy followed by radiation. By April of 2014, my bout with breast cancer was, I hoped, behind me. I’d fought the enemy and all I wanted to do was to close the door, put my feelings in a box and move on.


I couldn’t.


As an artist and storyteller, images of my psychological and emotional journey tumbled in to my head. Creating charcoal drawings that explored my experience and told my story helped me to understand the complexity of dealing with life after breast cancer. I began to transform the idea of fighting and flying from a fear based physical reaction, to a metaphor of change. Birds in the drawings symbolize what I lost because of breast cancer, and what I gained as well. Each drawing helped me to move closer to healing, and to “flying” with my new colors, once more.


As a very private person, I had no intention of sharing these stark, personal images. I had made them as a way to heal, not for public display.   But when I showed them to a few close friends and saw their reaction, I started to think differently. In talking to other survivors, I’ve realized that my feelings are not mine alone; I share them with a Sisterhood of women who’ve felt what I’ve felt. One survivor told me that she thought these drawings might help, not only other women with breast cancer, but also family and friends wanting to understand what’s happening in our hearts and minds as we navigate our way with both fight and flight.


Mary Jane


The drawings have been made into oversized prints and will be on display at URI Feinstein Providence Campus Arts and Culture Program with Providence Art Windows for the ART AND HEALING Exhibition. A multimedia exhibit of healing artists – fine artists, art therapists and rehabilitative artists, expressive artists – representing the use of art in healing, inspiring, transforming and overcoming illnesses.  My images will be in the windows of the library all along Washington Street from November 3- December 12.

Art and Healing Round Table November 13th at 7pm in the Paff Auditorium

Gallery Reception November 20th from 5-9pm with Performances by: Tenderloin Opera, along with music, dance, inspired words, a group of Prayer Shawl knitters, and interactive expressive arts activities.

3 Responses to Fight and Flight

  1. […] When she told me last year that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer -well, you can imagine. Thankfully she is doing great and one of the things to come out of this is -an amazing collection of charcoal drawings that illustrate what she was feeling and how she was processing the changes to her body and her world. We sat down to talk about it and you can see the images of her work here. […]

  2. Diagnosed with stage 2b breast cancer at the age of 44, this ecstatically happy mother of a beautiful 10 year old daughter, busy attorney and devoted wife to a busy attorney was devasted in that moment. The floor literally opened beneath my feet when I heard the words “you have breast cancer.” I started to fall into that darkness but miraculously my healers, who I know are my angels, my doctors, nurses,family, friends and survivors, gave me the energy and the strength to crawl away from the darkness. I was at the bottom of a dark tunnel,I saw the ugly snake, I starred it down and then I began to climb. 18 years later, I am on my third career, independent bookstore owner, mother of two very special young women, an extremely talented and gifted 28 year old opera singer and a very spirited and brilliant 16 year old adopted from China. I tell my story to all so that they too will have the strength and will to crawl up from the darkness. I believe we are all angels to each other.

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