How to fight cancer.

The last few months have been wonderful for me. And simultaneously rather awful. But the awful stuff has inspired me, perhaps more than the good. That’s the nature of the creative process, isn’t it? To take the manure of life and use it to fuel new growth.

Pharmaceutical smorgasbord.

So many of my favorite artists turned adversity into raw material. Van Gogh was fueled by his isolation and mental illness into a turbo–charged creativity machine that cranked out another startling painting virtually every day. Frida Kahlo, whose body was crisscrossed with scars from polio and from being run over by a bus, turned her disabilities, her awful marriage, her abortions and miscarriages into the sources for her brilliant work. Hockney faced homophobia; Basquiat racism; Bacon, Goya, Picasso were all inspired by the terrors of war.

Suffering is not only the domain of artists, but we especially have the power to repurpose life’s lessons into healing, illuminating work that we share with the rest of the suffering world. At SketchKon in Pasadena, Vanessa Brantley Newton referred to this process as “turning pain into paint.”

My anatomy redux

My creative rebirth began with my first wife’s crippling accident — searching for its meaning led me to my sketchbook. Her death a few yers ago prompted me to write my book, A Kiss Before You Go. And throughout my creative life, I have wanted to make beauty, find insight, learn who I am, understand the world. But when I neglect my sketchbook, there is no where for me to put the pain. It will just fester within me.

A year ago, my dog Tim died in a gruesome accident. His death led me to write about and draw him in commemoration, reminding me of what he had brought to our lives, keeping him alive on the page. When his brother Joe died late last October, I was bereft but then found peace in all of the many pages I had filled with his antics, his sweet face, his lovely fur.

Six scars and other indignities,

In early November, I had the first operation of my long life, removing a cancerous organ. It was an experience I had dreaded since I was teenager — the C Word! I discovered that the most scary part of it was fueled by my own ignorance, my denial, my fear itself cultivated over decades of refusing to looking that fear in the face. While part of me wanted to know as much about what I was going to go through as possible, I didn’t to want to sink into the horror show of YouTube videos and blogs and social media and sponsored websites that would terrify the rest of me with half-truths and irrelevancies.

My daily progress.

I made a friend who was undergoing the same experience and we started sharing all we were learning as we navigated the medical process. As my friend’s surgery was scheduled a few weeks after mine, I decided to document it all in words and pictures so I could share it with him before he had to face the same ordeal. My hope was that if he could learn from my experience, it would be easier to go through. I ended up writing a little book to send him which I later shared with my surgeon, my doctor, and my favorite nurse. I figured that they would be able to pass it on to other people in need of a first hand account.

In the end, honestly, these drawings and words were much more for me than they were for my friend or some strangers. Getting it down on paper, controlling the narrative, putting bookends around it, gave a sense of the finite to my experience.

And it helped me understand better why Frida would paint her nurse, her hospital bed, her scars. Why Vincent painted himself with a bandaged ear. Why my favorite artists painted screaming popes, bayonetted innocents, dying horses, dead wives. Not for the shock value that intrigued me as a sniggering adolescent, but to make the incomprehensible meaningful  to them — and ultimately the world.

The art we make is not just a means of gauging our talent or our progress or making pretty things to hang on the wall or sell in a gallery. Art making is the way to commemorate and honor love and suffering and all the vicissitudes of life — and share the wisdom we gain in the process.

72 thoughts on “How to fight cancer.”

  1. Dear Danny, beautiful touching post! I Hope you are recovering well. Please, keep drawing and writing, because you inspire us so much! Lots of love 💕

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  2. Hello Danny, oh I hope you are recovering well. I was a breast cancer research scientist. I too dreaded the C word myself and felt I was probably immune. 🙄🙄 But did get breast cancer. I couldn’t face my job anymore but found so much solace in drawing. I can’t, to this day, do what you did…that was very brave..but I am working on a little book now about what cancer research is all about and how it works….and why we should support it. Huge kudos to you for being able to do a bookfor your friend, your surgeon and yourself.
    Ps life is immensely BETTER after cancer. I hope you find that too.
    Caroline Pennington (Tilly Trout)

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Hello Virginia, in some bizarre way it was a pretty positive thing to have happened to me. These days I do more, am less worried about putting myself out there with my drawings and have my priorities all in the proper order. I am like Flora…life is all about the little things every single day.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I am sure the little book you wrote, drew, painted of your experience will help your friend and all those that the Dr.s and Nurses share it with as well. What a gift.

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  4. dear danny, sending you back all the good vibes you’ve sent out to me in the past and praying for your quick and complete recovery. leave it to you to think of others while you’re going through something like cancer. most would be concentrating only on themselves (with good reason). thank you for including us in this journey.

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  5. Dear Danny,
    Sorry to hear that this has happened to you. Good of you to keep on drawing and be so open to us. Wish you a fast recovery and look forward to see you in SBS. Best wishes from Kerstin in Sweden.

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  6. Thank you Danny, and I hope your recovery is continuing well. You have explained my experience so beautiful. Several years ago, although it feels l8ke yesterday, my horse died a painful and unexpected death. From that experience came one of my best paintings. Good health and happiness to you and yours in the coming year.

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  7. I have missed you, Danny. Thanks for showing up again, and for sharing some of your processing of pain and harvesting of meaning. You’re one of my favs!

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  8. I hope you are on the path to a long and creative recovery. Thank you for sharing. Sending nothing but the best to you. You have given so much to artists around the world. People who never knew they could be artists. Take time to look after yourself!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A great way to process this frightening and uncomfortable threat, to transform it into something helpful and informative! We Do learn a lot from these episodes in our lives! I appreciate your generosity in sharing yourself as you do, Danny! And I wish you a very good recovery, blessings for a new year that is healthy and joyful, soul nourishing!

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  10. Thank you for sharing this, hopefully done with, experience. Putting it out there in your usual simple human way (not the brand 😉 ) struck a cord and inspired me immensely. Who cares if the line is wonky as long as you are present and happy when you draw it 😀
    Speedy recovery and a Happy and Healthy New Year!!

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  11. Oh, I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this! Medical stuff frightens me so much. I hope you’re healing well and can put this scary episode behind you. The drawings seem to give it a humanity that can help others and give you some control over your own story. All the best to you as you recover.

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  12. Danny, thank you for sharing. I am sorry for your heart-wrenching losses and a terrifying diagnosis of cancer. I wish you a complete recovery. It was your creative efforts to come to terms with your own pain that brought you to me (“Creative License”) and taught me a way to deal with my own difficulties through drawing everyday things. This had the unexpected effect of introducing me to someone I didn’t know well – myself, and I am forever grateful to you for that. When my path looks unfamiliar and confusing, I turn again and again to drawing and this either helps me find my way, or to not worry about the uncertain and unknown. Although you are not friend or family, you are as important to me and many others as if you were, as you have cared enough to share what you know about navigating life with others so that we can find a way through the woods, too. Be well and strong, and thank you for being and continuing to be a guide and inspiration to those whose lives you touch.

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  13. Nooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!! So sorry to hear you have joined this club-///. One more thing we have in common—- damn big c!!!! Praying for a Miracle of Healing to Find You Now!!! Cindy

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  14. Hi, Danny!

    Thank you for sharing your story! Having lost my husband of 30 years to a horrible accident, I so understand that fear!! Sharing your story will help many people! Thank you for being a great soul!

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  15. Danny, I have missed you so much! Please, please, please publish this book. Cancer has touched my life, and loved ones are facing it now. I would welcome the solace your words and pictures have always provided. Either way, take care, and know you are loved by people you have never met.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for sharing. Your experiences and the candor with which you express them is both heartbreaking and uplifting. I appreciate your words and your art more than you know. Sending you healing thoughts and love as you continue to move forward with strength and health.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thankyou for sharing your personal story…i wish you a healthy & speedy recovery…you are such an inspiration to keep being creative in our daily lives…i love reading your blog & taking your SBS klasses!

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  18. I’ve been sharing the story of my endless fights with ill health for 20 years through words and pictures and also using these same creative practices to forgetbthe fight with my body when I’ve needed to. You’ve explained more eloquently than I ever could precisely why. Thinking of you, touched very deeply by what you have shared here, sending love and all good wishes to you and JJ. XX

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Dear Danny: I can’t tell you how serindipidous your post is for my husband and I. My husband will be going through bladder removal surgery in the coming months for bladder cancer. He is in a clinical study right now to shrink the cancer as much as possible prior to the surgery. I have been on the other side of this as a loved one watching…I know you are familiar with that role, as well. My sketchbook has helped me work out my frustration, anger, and fear. Our hearts are with you as you recover! Sending prayers for healing and love!! From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for sharing your story!! Becky

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  20. Dear Danny:

    I can’t tell you how serendipitous your post is for my husband and I. My husband will have a cystostomy in the coming months for bladder cancer. He is currently in a clinical trial to shrink his tumors as much as possible prior to the surgery. I am experiencing this as someone watching a loved one go through a difficult journey. I know you have been in this role yourself before. My sketchbook has helped me work through my feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, and fear. It has been my constant companion as I wait in waiting rooms, infusion rooms, and hospitals. Our hearts are with you in your recovery. Praying for your complete healing and sending you lots of love. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your heartfelt post!! Becky

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  21. Dear Danny,
    I’m mind boggled as to how you pulled off SketchKon with all this on your mind. Talk about The Show Must Go On! Bravo you!
    My heart aches for your losses of doggie buddies and body parts. The fear of that disease has to be the most overwhelming thing we all fear and dread. I too applaud your choice to draw and write about it. Just as your book Kiss helped so many others this one will too. Please tell the powers that be that you’ve more than filled your quota of life crap and it’s enough already. Time to just have good stuff, even if your art suffers from it … enough! 😊
    I send love, appreciation, hope, hugs and healing energy! Rest! Be well!
    And enjoy each day. Thanks for being you. Hugs to JJ too! As she goes through all this with you. 😘😘😘
    Your feisty student in life and art,
    Lynn CoMo Cohen

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I had to read this several times because I was experiencing so many thoughts. I talked to you at SketchKon, you looked great, how are you doing, I missed Vanessa (saw her ted talk though). What do you need from me or just need? The lessons continue…….

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  23. Danny ((((((Big hugs )))))
    My heart breaks again for you.
    My husband Jesse and best friend , lover and my everything died suddenly
    November 16 😦
    My sister who had also known him since 1973 immediately told me to do a book like you did for Patti
    I can and want to but am a little frozen in grief. I will push through that and get going on it.

    I will be praying for you my dear friend in hopes of C going away for a long while as you continue to be the very bright sparkly being that you are.

    Love love love Anndr

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    1. Dear Anndr:
      I am so sorry to hear about Jesse. Please don’t feel obliged to write books or do anything for the world until you have processed his loss. Grief is terrible but also precious. Experience it properly so the ghosts don’t haunt you. My thoughts are with you.
      Your pal, Danny

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  24. Dear Danny,
    I am very sorry you are going through this. You have had more than your share of heartache. I don’t know how you managed the kon after just having lost Tim and looking ahead to surgery.
    You are probably the most resilient person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
    Wishing you refua’ shlema ~ a full and complete recovery and lots more sketching!
    Love BIG hugs
    Sharon

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  25. Dear Danny, sending healing energy and hugs. Your book touched my heart and having lost our beloved dog in October I am too,so grateful for the sketches I have in my journals of him.
    Wishing you continuing healing and creative sketching .

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  26. Hope you kick the “C’ in the butt so to speak, ironic for me, is that I discovered you in 2007 after I recovered from kidney cancer and found your book ‘Creative License’ and started keeping a sketch book. I’m a 15 year survivor now so the ‘C” can be defeated.

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  27. So sorry to hear this … I’ve been there; done that .. My two brain surgeries were completely curative so good things do happen . (Stay away from the Internet … it’s full of scary stuff!) Still, once blind-sides by a diagnosis, forever leery.

    I want to thank you for one (of many) things : When I was wheeled into the OR, my first reaction was how beautiful and cool it was; all shiny amazing instruments and fantastic oyster shell lights. And I thought how I’d like to draw the room right then and there. To post on SBS! Keep in mind that I was enjoying a very nice IV “cocktail “ at the time. But still thank you! Heal well and quickly too. Wilma

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  28. Hi Danny,
    I just had uterine cancer removed in November so it seems we were probably going through much the similar emotions. I’m just so glad to survive the C word and go from victim to survivor. I never thought I could feel what so many other survivors feel. But, like you, I want to contribute to the community of sufferers and survivors. It’s a blessing to be here to do so. So glad you’re staying with us.

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  29. Dear Danny, I wish you a quick recovery and more courage to face things that are not fun. It is hard to share these bits with the rest of the world because they do feel so personal, isolating, and intensely our own. But just as we saw in Vanessa’s session at Sketchkon, and as you have found sharing your artwork about the loss of your beloved wife, your dog Tim, and now this scary health situation, we all find comfort, compassion, and commonality when we share what hurts the most. Hugs and best wishes – Michelle Marques from Santa Rosa, CA

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  30. Thank you, Danny. I had my first ambulance ride at the end of November. Still unknown what is going on. I have been home a lot since, and was driven to create cards for all the people who showed great kindness to me. I found a great deal of humor in many things. Sketchbook Skool brought this to me. Thank you!

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  31. Thank you Danny for once again teaching us about the healing power of art, in your open and forthright manner.
    I wish you well in your journey and look forward to your incredible mentorship in SBS.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Danny, I am so sorry to read your news. Having been through a big cancer operation myself three years ago I do feel for you and what you must be going through now. I think every ‘positive’ consultant’s visit you have afterwards is such a big plus – you begin to feel better immediately and that feeling stays with you. Just hang onto that feeling! Thinking of you and your family – you are a very brave, generous man and I thank you for all the help you have given me since I was ill in 2015, through SBS and yourself. God Bless. Ann

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  33. Sending positive and healing thoughts your way. Thank you for your honesty with all of your life struggles. I do think it helps others get perspective as well.

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  34. Danny that last paragraph says it all. So much going on with you and you keep recording it as a help for others.
    Sending our love and best wishes (spending so much time in hospitals is so very stressful for you and JJ and your family). Jim and I understand.
    Hope is all. Much love,
    Janice L-H and Jim

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  35. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers, Danny. I appreciate you sharing what you’ve been moving through and especially the way you’re relying on your art–as you have for awhile now in challenging times–to stay close to what’s unfolding and how you’re feeling about it. Glad for your insight about the unhelpfulness of the internet in times like this. I’m wondering if there’s anything you need from me or from us–your readers / fans / fellow mark-makers. If there is, please be sure to let us know. You’ve given so much here. Would love to somehow return the favor. Be well, friend, and take things a day at a time.

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  36. Dear Danny, this touched my heart. I am a cancer fighter too…..a stade 3.5 kidney cancer, they removed it 21 years ago and at that time they were giving me 2 months to live ! I hope you heal well. All of your books have inspired me when I came back to drawing after 30 years of raising my family. You are are helping and giving jope to somany of us ! Please take good care of you !

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  37. Danny, I thank you for being fearlessly transparent and setting up that lemonade stand for all of us to visit. You’ve once again showed us how creativity heals in unimaginable ways. I’m so thankful for your tenacious creative spirit and acknowledge the tremendous role your arts practice has on your personal healing. Leading by example, your art, humour and courage to share are loving and inspiring. I hope you can continue to do whatever you need for yourself, and wish you the best on this bumpy journey of life. Thanks for the lemonade recipe. Cheers!

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  38. Dear Danny – Thank you for sharing your personal suffering with us. You are an inspiration to others going through life’s painful experiences. It takes a brave soul to share ourselves with others in this way and it is beautiful to see. I will pray for your continued recovery.

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  39. Wow Danny! So sorry to hear about the losses of your kiddos & that C word. Interestingly enough, I’ve had somewhat of a parallel year. Lost both of my kids this past year 5 mos from one another and had just been treated for cancer the fall before. I’ve documented and drawn a lot more than previously. It is interesting how it seems to come about more when we’re going through so much emotion turbulence. I wish you a happy & healthy new year and wish you nothing but the best. Love reading your stories and sharing your art, has kept and is keeping me going. Thank you 😊

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  40. You managed to keep doing Facebook live’s, make podcasts, put courses together, deliver the Sketchathon event, plan for 2019, make art and do all the other daily things you probably have in your life whilst putting the big C**t in it’s place. You inspire and motivate tens of thousands of people because you are a VERY special person.

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  41. Dear Danny: I am so very sorry to learn of your cancer. (And what a generous thing you did, hosting Sketchkon while you were dealing with this.) Your honesty, bravery, and art making are such an inspiration. Thank you. Please take very good care — and know I am sending love and healing thoughts.

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  42. You are such a fine inspiration to those that know you. My hope is that this ordeal is over for you completely and that you live a long, rich & happy life. I learned much from my wife’s experience with cancer that took her while much too young.
    God Bless

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  43. I hope you will recover fast. You gave so much positive energy to so many people (me included), if we all give you a little back… 🤔 You did amazing drawings and I think you will help many people with these drawings. Thank you!

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  44. It’s very easy to waste a lot of time on the internet but it is never a waste of time reading your words! You are an inspiration because of your honesty and humanity (not to mention your sense of humor!) Please continue to inspire us. And before that take good care of yourself.

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  45. I am shocked and sorry to hear about your recent cancer diagnosis and surgery. Thank you for writing about it and doing those wonderful drawings about your experiences that only you can do. You are the best! I am sending strong get-well vibes your way and hope your diagnosis starts turning in a more positive direction. You have changed countless lives in major ways through your art, books, podcasts, SBS classes, SketchKon and more. We’ve got your back Danny! Keep writing and drawing! Sending love and hugs to you and JJ.

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  46. With the support of your SBS community you will be counted amongst the survivors. My husband is thriving after prostate cancer and is thankful for each new day. Keep creating and writing as your outreach means a lot to others. Speedy recovery vibes coming your way.

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  47. Thank you, Danny! I am in processes like yours. last minth I had a diagnosis of a recedive tumor that was left by one of my kdney. I’ve enrolled in four of sketchbook Skool courses in december and this time of waiting for cirugery was a realy fun one! for my recovering I’m keeping the wercour rules kourse!
    I hope you recover fast and well! thank your for your company all theses days!
    Maria Alice

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  48. Thoughtful post about something we all dread, and too many have experienced. I’m a 21 year cancer survivor, and my husband has dealt with two types including a rare cancer he’ll have the rest of his life. Looking forward to your next post in this ‘Art After Cancer’ series. Wishing you a positive outcome, and a renewed creative spirit.

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  49. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had to face cancer Danny. My son, George, has had a long fight with leukaemia and its been very tough but he’s doing well. It was his long journey that brought me back to drawing again (always a childhood passion), and to find sketchbook skool. Your book Everyday Matters is the best book I have, your struggles after your wife’s accident struck a chord with me and it’s the book I go to when I’m feeling a bit lost again. I hope you are on the mend and glad to see your still following your passion and inspiring so many people to smack that monkey in the face and get creative again. It is, for sure, the best form of therapy, so thank you for showing me the way.

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  50. Just found this blog and sorry you are going thru this. My husband had the same surgery 7 years ago and still going strong. I had not discovered sketching then and wish I had. Just being able to express my feelings thru art would have been comforting. Thank you for sharing your journey.

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  51. Danny, I’ve just found this post. I was so pleased to discover SBS a few years ago and have enjoyed hearing about your and Koosje’s lives. I am so sorry to hear of your health scare. Are you alright now? Recuperating well? I am sending you lots of good energy. Use as much as you need. 🙂

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