Facing Breast Cancer

Gabi Barmettler


Mixed media- oil pastel, graphite and ink

She was unable to get to the doctor although her breast cancer had been growing for the past 3 years. In the last year, it had protruded from her skin creating an exophytic mass, hard as a rock. Financial hardships made the $50 copay insurmountable. I could see the fear in her eyes as she heard the Cantonese translator tell her that she had breast cancer. She asked if she could get back to her job packing salads in a refrigerator immediately following her PET scan for metastases. We looked into each other, feeling sorrow and pain.

This image shows our faces meeting, the separation between us combining into one. In the center of the composition is her right breast, the inferolateral portions taken over by the cancerous red mass. The red arrows demonstrate the insidious spread of her cancer over years, proliferating throughout her body, to bone, brain, lungs and lymph nodes. Her financial woes, tied into her life working in the refrigerator packing salads is demonstrated by the blue sections of the composition. She spends her days in this harsh cold environment with money and stressors preventing her from accessing healthcare. Estrogen and progesterone receptor mediated tumor growth is symbolized by their chemical structures in the lower half of the drawing. The bottom right of the composition shows the insuperable stairs to healthcare for those with limited access, due to language, financial and sociocultural barriers.

Meeting her and sharing her emotional anguish inspired me to become a surgical oncologist. In this world where millimeter sized precancerous lesions can be detected on mammography, she still could not access the care she needed. If I can help someone like her with both my mind and my hands, I will do so. While technical in surgical procedures, my healing touch will be filled with empathy and comfort, understanding humanity. 


Breast cancer; empathy; surgical oncology

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