Karen Wardrop walks into a stranger's living room and takes off her clothes. Thick scars violate her chest and abdomen.
Her psyche is just as maimed.
The cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy in 2005 sent Wardrop's live-in boyfriend running and ruined her finances. Some friends abandoned her. She got too sick to work, became addicted to pain medication and watched in horror as her teenage son got into them, too. Complications led to three more surgeries.
"I couldn't just deal with the cancer and try to recover, because there were so many other things coming at me that I couldn't just concentrate on the cancer," Wardrop says to the stranger.
• • •
That stranger is an artist, Lisa Scholder. She will spend the next five hours using her fingers to spread paint over Wardrop's body.
Scholder begins by smearing purple and blue over scars, silicone breast implants and a "survivor" shoulder tattoo. It's sort of a base coat.
"This is just going to get messed up anyway, I don't really know why I do it," she says, glancing at a third person in the room, Peggie Sherry.
"She does it to see if you're ticklish," Sherry says, completing a well-practiced exchange meant to be an icebreaker.
For five years, Sherry and Scholder have worked together to body-paint and then photograph dozens of breast cancer survivors. Their project, Bodies of Courage, uses the art for calendars and photo exhibitions to build awareness and support treatment programs.
Wardrop, 49, attended Sherry's cancer camp last year, and then saw on Sherry's Facebook page a call for volunteers to have their bodies painted. "I thought I could do something for them, because they've done so much for me," she said. That's why Wardrop thinks this afternoon is just about creating art for the project.
The real agenda emerges slowly.
Now that the clothes that hide Wardrop's scars are gone, girl gossip begins. Alternating among her index, middle and pinky fingers — and sometimes her thumb or fingernail — Scholder dabs on blues, reds, whites, yellow, purple. Wardrop likes the touch of her hands. Sherry shares her own experience with cancer and tells Wardrop that "this is like a girls night, without the alcohol."
Gradually, Wardrop reveals a decade of tears, fears, money problems, parental guilt, cancer's pain, body issues, sex issues, addiction, loneliness, regrets, insecurities.
"I do not want to leave my kids alone,'' Wardrop says of her daughter, 13 and son, 19. "My mom died when I was 23, and I had nobody after that. I know that total alone feeling, and I don't want to do that to my kids.''
This, then, is the point: As the paint goes on, some of the pain comes off.
Sherry explains: "I think anything that allows a person's body to calm down and have less 'dis-ease' in their life helps the immune system to fight a little bit better."
• • •
For almost two decades, Sherry has been one of those new age, hippie, holistic-healing types.
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"Back when we first started doing yoga, tai chi, massage, acupuncture and cancer camps, we were considered the woo-woo people,'' she says. "Fast-forward 16 years later and, all of the sudden, it's called integrative medicine, and every hospital is judged by whether they have integrative medicine in their practice in order to be considered a top hospital."
Moffitt Cancer Center radiation oncologist Dr. Sarah Hoffe agrees: "As scientists, we know about the body. We know what controls the cancer. We know what regulates its growth. We know what is effective to stop it.
"New studies are now showing that the connection between the mind and the body is greater than we ever thought before. One of the most exciting things to me is seeing it in the blood. You can actually take measures after doing an intervention, whether it is meditation, tai chi, a visual form of relaxation or an audio form of relaxation. Scientists can measure decreases of what we call the stress hormone, or cortisol, and the science is now showing there is a pathway between decreasing stress levels and the well-being of the patient. That is very exciting."
• • •
Wardrop is now in remission. Her son is clean and on track to graduate high school in January. She lives with pain instead of pills, and is proud of that. Still, so much of her is broken, inside and out. How do you feel blessed to be alive and so tired at the same time?
"For me, it's never been about having a healing process, it's been about being alive one more day. I am still here for my children," Wardrop says.
By midafternoon, Wardrop is an abstract painting. The women take pictures on the backyard porch and can't stop laughing. Wardrop strikes poses like a supermodel. She lifts her chin in the air toward a painted sun on the side of the house and smiles. She doesn't think about the science or the healing process.
For years now, many, maybe most, of Wardrop's days have been a struggle. But not this one.