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How Watson Clinic is Offering Connection Through Art for Breast Cancer Survivors

Someone who has never survived cancer may assume that once you’re cured life returns to normal. 

This couldn’t be further from true.

After living through a traumatic event, cancer survivors are often left behind. Loved ones stop checking in. Medical bills arrive. The world keeps turning, but they’re still living with the illness every day. 

“It’s always over your shoulder, the fear it might come back,” breast cancer survivor Simoni Limeira-Bonadies says. Years after her treatment, she still juggles frequent doctor’s appointments, undergoes regular medical testing and takes intrusive medications. 

Survivors can feel positive about their outcome and trust their medication—but they still need education and connection with others who’ve dealt with the same thing.

Simoni bravely shared her story with The Lakelander in an effort to help others walk valiantly through their own journeys.

In May 2017, she found a lump in her breast at home during a self-exam. “I didn’t want to go to the doctor, but I just had a gut feeling,” she said. “I felt like my body was telling me something.” Simoni’s gut feeling was right. Her doctor found a cancerous lump. 

In the surgery to remove it, the doctor discovered more; Simoni had three types of cancer in the same breast.

Months of medical appointments and painful treatments would follow. One lumpectomy led to chemotherapy, radiation, and ultimately a double mastectomy.

Through it all, Simoni never stopped working. A local middle school art teacher, she taught her students all week and went to treatment every Thursday. “Art helped me the whole way through. Both teaching it, and creating it,” she said. 

For Simoni, art was everywhere, especially in the doctor’s office. Thanks to the Watson Clinic Arts in Medicine Program, patient-created artwork lives on the walls of the lobby and the ceiling tiles of the treatment rooms. That art inspired Simoni to paint a cancer cell—she wanted to show the beauty in its intricacies, the nuance within life-altering circumstances.

“Art helped me the whole way through. Both teaching it, and creating it.” 

Watson Clinic’s art is intentional. In recent years, research has shown the positive outcomes when arts and medicine integrate. Studies have found that art aids healing; it offers an opportunity to create, to express and to connect.

The Watson Clinic Arts in Medicine Program explores the connection between art and healing, and is currently hosting a series of educational and creative workshops for breast cancer survivors. The workshops aim to connect survivors with their community and others who have been through similar experiences to help them ultimately find a renewed sense of themselves. 

Tiffany Van Wieren, Watson Clinic Foundation Arts in Medicine Program Coordinator, explored what a program like this might look like when a doctor talked to her about the reality of survivorship. 

“Your quality of life is equivalent to your quality of connection,” Tiffany said. “Art is innately part of the way we connect with others. That’s why this program was born.”

With the support of local partners like the Polk Museum of Art, Florida Dance Theatre and the Garden Club of Lakeland, the four-class Breast Cancer Survivorship Series is offered twice per year.

When The Lakelander met Simoni she was attending the second workshop within the series: Building Strength through Movement, where Florida Dance Theatre’s Executive Director Jermaine Thornton taught the class about the connection and strength within dance.

After the workshop, Jermaine led a conversation around the reality of living through a traumatic event. Going around the table, a few women vulnerably shared their experience surviving cancer. Many shed tears recalling the isolation they felt—the loneliness it brought and the hope they still felt.

“I didn’t like being called a ‘survivor’ for a long time, because I thought it meant I couldn’t live a full life,” said Simoni. “The workshop showed me I am a survivor. I have a new understanding of the word: I am surviving every day. My entire family is a survivor, too.”

This past June, Simoni and her husband hiked the Alps. They walked more than 75 miles. “I’ve learned not to wait any longer to do the things I want to do,” she said. “Tomorrow is never certain.”

Their next trip is already booked.

Tiffany Van Wieren, Arts in Medicine Coordinator for the Watson Clinic Foundation (left) and Simoni Limeira-Bonadies (right).