October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Statistically, one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
University of West Florida Professor of Art Valerie George was no exception to this. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and has had two reoccurrences of it since then.
“I was first diagnosed in 2013 and it was a total shock,” George said. “I wasn’t very well educated by my medical practitioners in the area, so it was downplayed quite a bit in terms of the severity of the disease.”
At the time of her diagnosis, George was told that she would only need a lumpectomy and radiation to remove cancer from her breast. She was also told that she would never have to deal with breast cancer again. That was not the case.
“I didn’t get a lot of education or training about the disease at the time,” George said. “Even though I’m a professor and research guru, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I didn’t find anything beyond what was given to me. It’s a really mystifying disease in terms of its nuance.”
After her first diagnosis, George was again diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and 2018. She left Pensacola to seek better treatment in 2018.
“My cancer had mutated and become more aggressive,” George said. “I finally left the local area and went to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Everybody there was very much interested in educating me and helping me understand exactly what I was facing.”
While at MD Anderson, George underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. This procedure was designed to stop any future occurrences of breast cancer.
During this time, George was still teaching classes at UWF. The university worked alongside her to ensure her health and safety during diagnosis and treatment.
“The university was incredibly supportive,” George said. “I contacted human resources right away because I knew I was going to be dealing with some pretty nasty symptoms, side effects and recovery from surgeries for quite some time.”
Faculty and staff from the UWF Department of Art and Design also worked alongside George to ensure her health was a priority, as well as to limit her physical contact with students. They worked with her so that she could teach remotely during chemotherapy and surgery.
“My students were amazing,” George said. “I told them what I was going through, I showed up bald and I showed up in wigs. I was very honest with them about what was happening to me and my body.”
Despite all that was happening, she ensured her students that she was going to make it.
“At the end of the day, I just couldn’t believe how amazing my students were,” George said. “I thought they’d be so fragile to see a person going through this, but they were not. They were tough, supportive and appropriately affectionate.”
Amid this difficult time, George had the support of friends and family to keep up her spirits. She also found comfort in creating art.
“As most of us know, art is therapeutic,” George said. “However, it should never be substituted for actual therapy.”
While battling breast cancer, George sought counseling. She believes that there is no better way to deal with something as horrifying as breast cancer than by seeking professionals.
“Cancer is very traumatic,” George said. “You experience very real cognitive dissidence, loneliness and fear. You have to face your mortality.”
In 2018, George created her first body of artwork that purposefully relates to her battle with breast cancer. The piece is entitled ‘Welcome to My Party’ and was showcased in the Pensacola Museum of Art in the summer of 2019.
The postcard image for ‘Welcome to My Party’ features two deflated balloons.
“It’s simply a metaphor for having a double mastectomy, or two deflated breasts,” George said. “I was using the language of a party to unpack everything I was going through with breast cancer and the treatment I was experiencing. Breast cancer is not a party, but at the same time, you have to laugh, you have to find the joy in it, and you have to find the strength to keep breathing while enduring treatment.”
George currently has an exhibition entitled ‘Cheer Me Up, Cheer Me On’ on display at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center. This exhibition builds off of works from ‘Welcome to My Party’ and showcases her experience with breast cancer via multimedia art and photography. The exhibition will be on display until Dec. 15.
Additionally, George currently has work displayed in an exhibition entitled ‘Anthropology of Motherhood: Culture of Care’ at the Carlow University Art Gallery in Pittsburgh. It will be on display until Jan. 29, 2021.
Despite her multiple battles with breast cancer, George is thankful that she detected the disease early on. Before first being diagnosed, a lump was found in her breast during a routine appointment with a gynecologist.
“In 2013 I was 38-years-old, so I was very young to experience it,” George said. “I was lucky to have caught it because most women don’t get their first mammogram until the age of 40. My gynecologist felt something and sent me straight over, so I was very lucky because of her diligence.”
George is now breast cancer-free. She thanks the healthcare workers who helped her in her fight with this disease. She also thanks her family, friends, students and the UWF community who supported her during this rough time in her life.
“It’s important to be diligent, and the best way to survive breast cancer is by catching it early,” George said. “Breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence, especially if you are getting your mammograms and doing self-checks. Women can get breast cancer in their 20s, so it’s very important for women to educate themselves.”
For more information about breast cancer, please visit breastcancer.org. You can also visit nationalbreastcancer.org or cancer.org.
For more information about Valerie George’s art installations, visit the links below. Please note that some of the material in these exhibits may be graphic or disturbing to some viewers.
Welcome to My Party, Pensacola Museum of Art
Cheer Me Up, Cheer Me On, Alabama Contemporary Art Center
Anthropology of Motherhood: Culture of Care, Carlow University Art Gallery