Art therapist’s breast cancer journey fuels passion to help others with the disease

Norton Cancer Institute art therapist is a breast cancer survivor who uses art and her story to give patients hope.

While Leigh Galloway undergoes her last chemotherapy treatment before a double mastectomy, she and Laura Chamberlin are engrossed in a watercolor.

Like she does often with Laura, an expressive art therapist with Norton Cancer Institute Resource Centers, Leigh opens up in that way that seems easier when your focus is elsewhere.

“I’m nervous, scared. I’ve just cried like a baby, because it is a part of my body that I’ve had a long time and that’s something that doesn’t grow back,” Leigh said, pausing, then adding some more pink to the painting.

Laura comforts Leigh with calming words of reassurance and understanding. Laura understands all too well.

In July 2011, Laura was 28 and had to digest those four scary words: “You have breast cancer.” Laura’s cancer was triple negative, meaning physicians couldn’t attack the cancer through estrogen, progesterone or human epidermal growth factor therapy. Chemotherapy is still an effective option.

Laura received multiple rounds of chemotherapy — completely dissolving her almost golf ball-sized lump. Then, she underwent a double mastectomy — a more aggressive approach to bring her peace of mind by reducing the risk of the cancer returning.

“It was definitely a huge trauma — I guess there is no way to really mentally prepare yourself for that,” Laura said.

Laura has been free of cancer for about seven years.

“I was lucky, because I was referred to some amazing doctors,” Laura said. “My doctor [Jeffrey B. Hargis, M.D., oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute] was amazing.”

Laura serves as a beacon of hope for the patients she works with at Norton Cancer Institute. Her story provides reassurance that they’re not alone and that there’s life after cancer.

“I once worked with a woman who was also Dr. Hargis’ patient and had the same breast cancer as me,” Laura said. “I could tell that sharing my story brought her a sense of comfort and relief — and in that moment there was a very powerful connection between us.”

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As Leigh and Laura paint, Leigh tries to prepare herself for a double mastectomy in a couple months.

“When I was introduced to Laura and told that these works of art were something I could do while here, it changed my journey and made it so much better,” Leigh said. “It helps take my mind off of what I’m going through.”

Working Through Fear, Anxiety, Anger and Frustration

Laura’s passion is bringing some semblance of comfort by helping patients process their feelings and reduce stress through art therapy.

“There’s a lot of fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, because while you are going through this the world around you is moving forward, and your world is on pause,” Laura said.

To work through those emotions, art therapy is something Laura did herself as a cancer patient.

“I would practice something called body mapping, where during treatments I would take an outline of my body on paper and draw the chemo going through my body to the tumor,” said Laura. “It helped me to feel more empowered.”

Laura now uses this technique with her patients. She joined Norton Cancer Institute as an art therapist in 2018.

“I wanted to go back and positively impact people’s lives,” Laura said.

She hopes her story will open people’s eyes to the world of expressive art therapy and its benefits, all while educating the community about breast cancer and the difference early detection makes in survival.

Laura encourages women to get their mammograms and regularly do breast self-exams, paying close attention to any changes.

“And if you have dense breasts, like me, be sure to advocate for a 3D mammogram or biopsy, if you notice any changes to your breasts,” Laura said.

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