They searched for a path out of the wilderness of cancer, a path back to joy, a path back to life.
The disease not only erects life-threatening physical obstacles in this dark and debilitating forest, it often challenges the mind with the weeds of doubt, the overgrown brush of fear or the tangling vines of depression.
But this group of female cancer survivors found its way out of the darkness with the aid of an artist who saw their bodies as a canvas for creativity.
The result of this endeavor: a calendar of colorful images that captures the human spirit by featuring human bodies — ones that remain beautiful despite the ravages of cancer.
On Tuesday, the work of artist Lisa Scholder will be on display at "Bodies Of Courage," an exhibit at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center's new satellite location at International Plaza that will showcase the photos and highlight the importance art can play in medicine.
"I gained a lot of knowledge and a lot of friends," Scholder said of painting the survivors. "To meet these women was so inspiring because as I painted, they're telling me what they've been through.
"It's your body and it's something you live with every day. You have to become one with it and accept it. I think it helped them accept what they have now and realize it's still beautiful. It's still them."
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To find models, Scholder worked with Peggie Sherry, founder and director of Faces of Courage, a nonprofit organization that provides camps and other life-enriching activities for kids, women and families touched by cancer.
Scholder went to one of Sherry's camps for breast cancer survivors armed with body painting images she had crafted in the past. She did a little painting on the women's arms. The models were intrigued and signed up to participate.
Yet when the day came for Wanda Shuford-Miguenes to actually bare her body before Scholder, Sherry and a male videographer filming Scholder's work for a companion video, she hesitated. Not even her husband had seen her breasts since she had a double mastectomy.
"When I got there and saw the guy taking pictures, I got leery," Shuford-Miguenes said. "Then I thought, 'Why should I be ashamed?' I just went for it.
"I gained joy, joy from thinking that I was deformed to knowing that with other people looking at my body I was normal. It was an awesome experience."
Sherry said Shuford-Miguenes almost "ran out of there with the paint on" she was so excited. Most of the models, according to Sherry, shared that sense of liberation. And Sherry should know. As a cancer survivor, she also participated in the body painting.
"I think that each one of the survivors has a different view of their survivorship and their body issues," Sherry said. "The body painting allowed them to look at themselves in a new light with all this color."
The exhibit also gives Moffitt a chance to showcase its arts in medicine program. It invites patients and family members to experience live music, visual arts, poetry, movement and theater in a comfortable environment.
Sherry noted that all kinds of arts and activities can help heal the mind, from journaling to massage to tai chi. It's all about finding that path.
"The most important thing is, we take a survivor and transform them into a thriver," Sherry said. "We want them to thrive with the new opportunity to live that they have."
I don't know why cancer exists, but I believe Sherry's destiny was to survive it so she can be a guiding light out of that wilderness.
That's all I'm saying.