ZEPHYRHILLS — Forgetting things is usually not a good sign, especially when you are sick.
But when that sickness is cancer, anything that gives the ability to forget is a blessing.
For Mary Sears, it was art.
Getting lost in her painting got her through the breast cancer pinpointed during a routine mammogram. It made her forget about her next date with the chemotherapy needle. It made her forget the clumps of hair left on her pillow. It made her forget her sallow cheeks.
"The world could crash around my ankles, and I wouldn't have realized it," said Sears, who turns 68 Sunday and who has been cancer-free for seven years. "That's when it dawned on me that if this helps me, it would help other cancer patients."
Four years ago, Sears began offering weekly classes to oncology patients at Florida Medical Clinic's Zephyrhills office. The program is underwritten by the clinic's nonprofit foundation.
Sears began with about half a dozen students in a clinic board room that had to be transformed each week into a makeshift studio. As word spread, the program grew to about 35 to 40. Space got tighter, but no one minded.
"Some of these people have been through hell and back, and there's never a negative word," Sears said. "There's always laughter and sunshine."
Sears is a self-taught artist whose career began at age 4 when she decorated her mother's new white couch with cherry trees of bright red lipstick.
"I got in big trouble for that," she recalled. At 16, she submitted a drawing of a dog to an art contest. She won. The prize was a scholarship to an art school in New York. She was too young, her parents said. They never sent in the forms. Later, two representatives from the school knocked on the Searses' door in Columbus, Ohio. They said even though Sears was 16, they'd hold the scholarship for two years.
"Absolutely not," her father said. "She's not ever going to be an artist."
Undeterred, Sears checked out every art book she could find at the library. She studied each one. From books she learned how to draw a horse. She also learned what later would become her favorite thing: portraits. She practiced constantly.
"I made all the classic mistakes," she recalled.
As a wife and mother of three children and three more stepchildren, Sears kept up with her art. She would do it at night after the kids went to bed. She would do it early mornings before they woke up. She would use any spare time she could find and paint.
"You always make time for what you love," she said. "God gives each of us a talent. It's up to us to use it."
Sears taught her first class in her home during the four years her family lived in Mexico. Her students were a mix of Mexicans and Americans. She had not yet become proficient in Spanish, but that was okay.
"There are no language barriers with art," she said.
She taught classes at a retirement community in Zephyrhills. She has never taught for pay.
When cancer was diagnosed, art helped heal her spirit. She even painted four oils for her oncologist's office.
"He wanted something restful," she said. Sears donated peaceful landscapes in soft hues.
Then the foundation accepted her offer to teach patients. It would provide all her supplies. All she had to do was show up.
She's been doing that each Wednesday for four years. She shows students how to draw, paint, anything they want. She also teaches them what not to do and offers gentle critiques.
"What's wrong with this painting?" she asked this week as she held up an image of a docked boat. In minutes, the students reeled off a list.
"It's a real morale booster," said Mary Campbell, a 78-year-old breast cancer survivor. "We love our Wednesdays."
Florida Medical Clinic CEO Joe Delatorre noticed the program's popularity and the lack of space for it. He had an idea.
In about three months, the foundation worked out a deal with Realtor Bill Nye to use a building in the clinic's parking lot. It had been Ron's Deli. Before that it was a pizza joint.
Marketing director Janet Wing and other staffers worked frantically to turn it into an art studio. They also worked secretly so they could surprise Sears.
"People asked me if I was getting a new office," Wing said.
To unveil the new studio, the foundation board threw what was being billed as a company picnic. They told the art students only that they had a gift for Sears. Come to the picnic, was all they told Sears.
When Sears showed up, she didn't notice the cloth covering the sign at the top of the building. Foundation president Sheri Schwab took the microphone and mentioned that Sears' birthday was Sunday and they wanted to honor her with a gift. They rolled out a welcome mat. "Creativity Lives Here," it said.
Then, they plopped the mat in front of the new building and ripped the cloth off the Mary Sears Healing Arts Studio sign.
Sears covered her mouth with her hands and teared up.
"I'm living my dream," she said after she was given the key.
Said a voice from the crowd: "You go girl!"
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.