One woman’s story with so much to teach us.
The concept of art as an extension of the self is fairly universal in creative spaces. Artists of all kinds, from song writers to sculptors, use their life experiences to drive their genius. Heartbreak songs and landscape paintings easily communicate to their audiences exactly from what and where they drew their inspiration. More abstract works, however, leave a little more to the imagination.
Take, for instance, Fragmented Beauty by Yvonne Parker. This collection of mixed media sculptures by the curator and co-owner of the global fine arts company Parker and Parker Art (PaPA) says and does a lot of things. It’s campy, it’s colorful. It’s complex in its construction yet simply charming in its presence. Of all the life experiences to come to mind when guessing what inspired this body of work, breast cancer may be the last thing you think of.
The Perfect Storm
While the Fragmented Beauty pieces themselves may not illustrate a breast cancer story, the name of the series is fairly revealing. In the years approaching her breast cancer diagnosis, Yvonne’s life was surely “fragmented”: frequently traveling, running her several galleries all over the world, and handling a variety of life changes while maintaining her career in interior design. In 2003 in the midst of her bustling career, Yvonne developed a growth on her left ovary. Her doctors thought the large tumor was surely ovarian cancer. So, in an attempt to return to health and normalcy, Yvonne quickly opted for surgical removal of the cyst. “Thinking it was ovarian cancer, I really looked mortality in the eye,” Yvonne said. However, in the tests during her operation, doctors realized that the tumor was, in fact, a benign symptom of endometrioses - “a disease that could be exacerbated by stress,” she explained. Between this, and a goiter that appeared in her throat a few years later, Yvonne began to really listen to what her body was trying to tell her.
“I think the ovarian cyst and the thyroid goiter were messengers to take it down a notch, to not live so stressful, and then the [breast cancer] came in and said ‘Hey we have something to tell you.’... And that brought me on the path of deep, deep healing.”
While the early stages of her breast cancer (otherwise known as DCIS) did not appear until 2009—six years after her endometriosis— Yvonne still cited the “scattered and fragmented” lifestyle she maintained as creating “the perfect storm for this cancer to appear.” Because she had embarked on a path of holistic healing following her revealing experiences with the ovarian operation and goiter draining, Yvonne chose to do the same with her breast cancer.
“The holistic path was really given to me by growing up in Europe. I grew up in Germany, right on the Swiss and French border, and my parents were very much in holistic health,” Yvonne explained. “I felt very comfortable with that, I felt very much in alignment with it. I trusted it.” And thus, began the journey of holistic treatment Yvonne decided to pursue; the “beauty” following the fragmentation.
A Hero’s Journey
Holistic treatment is definitely a road less traveled among many breast cancer patients and doctors, due to conflicting research and misgivings about its pros and cons. So, when Yvonne’s breast cancer tumor, appeared in 2009, doctors naturally pushed her to surgically remove it while it was still in its early stages. Rather than take this customary approach, Yvonne wanted to “address the source” of her cancer; to listen to her body and figure out what the cancer was trying to tell her. Despite the pressure from doctors, family, and friends to operate, Yvonne stuck to her holistic path.
“I had to stand up for myself and say why I’m doing [a holistic method], and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t understand it... And that’s fine,” Yvonne said. “Everybody has their own path and makes their own choice...For me the healing process has a lot of different dimensions...I think it’s a lot harder than just ‘go in and cut it out.”
‘Going in and cutting it out’ proved a scary thought to Yvonne for a variety of reasons; from a “fear of the white coats”, to concern over the side effects of traditional breast cancer protocol. But Yvonne was determined to overcome those fears, so she remained steadfast in the face of skepticism of her alternative treatment. However, in 2019 when the tumor suddenly accelerated to a large triple R negative growth, Yvonne chose to pursue chemo therapy and surgery, thereby integrating traditional treatment into her holistic path.
Nonetheless, Yvonne’s steadfastness over the decade of opting for alternative methods while her cancer’s growth was minimal ultimately defined her experience. While her courage made it possible to come out a survivor, Yvonne opts not to use the term “breast cancer survivor” when describing her journey. Instead, she describes it as the “Hero’s Journey”: a story structure consisting of a hero that “comes home changed, transformed, and triumphant” after an arduous adventure.
“When you say ‘breast cancer survivor’, for me, that triggers a little bit of victimhood,” Yvonne said. “I worked a lot on empowering myself in getting out of the victim role - ‘Poor me, why is this happening to me?’... This path that I’m on, I choose it as an empowered path. It’s empowering me to speak my voice and my truth.”
That empowerment to self-advocate proved crucial. Doctors, accustomed to their traditional methods of breast cancer treatment, often outwardly expressed their distrust in Yvonne’s methods. When it came time for chemo therapy and an operation in early 2020, Yvonne had been practicing holistic wellness for years. Her body was primed to withstand the stress of treatment. Doctors were pleasantly surprised at how well she responded, but rather than learn more about the role Yvonne’s holistic treatments played, they insisted on overlooking that information. While doctors chose to remain ignorant of her alternative approach’s impact, technicians looked down on Yvonne’s lack of traditional care and criticized her holistic path.
“Very often I would go to get these screenings and [the technicians] would say, ‘So for the last ten years you didn’t do anything and now you’re here with this big tumor.’ And I would get so upset,” Yvonne said. “At one point I just said, ‘No, sorry you’re wrong. You don’t even know my path.’”
Yvonne doesn’t hold it against her doctors that they only seemed comfortable with the traditional methods they were trained in. In fact, she recognizes that her team was very good at what they did. However, she also recognizes that those doctors have “their own point of view”, which may omit some aspects of the “bigger picture”. In Yvonne’s view, while her tumor was only in her breast, her breast was connected to the entirety of her physical and spiritual being. And her Hero’s Journey entailed tackling all of that at once, despite the judgements and hesitations of others.
Beauty, Art, and Surviving Breast Cancer
As an art curator, cultivator, and expert, Yvonne naturally used art as an extension of herself along her Hero’s Journey. Every aspect of this journey –from the fragmentation of life before diagnosis, to the beauty of the courage found afterwards—is reflected in Yvonne’s work. She’s always seen her pieces as autobiographical, which is why they’ve become more minimalistic since her diagnosis.
Her latest series, Blanc de Blanc, illustrates the serenity, purity, and spirituality Yvonne has found through her holistic path. Unlike the variant Fragmented Beauty sculptures, which put so many disparate pieces into one form, Blanc de Blanc cloaks minimal combinations in white to create one harmonious body. In the same way, Yvonne went from constantly attempting to piece together the various elements of her life and work, to learning to find harmony and wholeness within herself. Since taking the cue from not only her body, but the world as COVID-19 has ultimately halted the gallery component of her career, Yvonne has learned to seek ease and grace in a slower, simpler, more peaceful life.
In finding the beauty of her transformed perspective, Yvonne has also realized how breast cancer changed her perceptions of beauty itself. “Beauty, for me, has been a motif throughout my life,” Yvonne explained. Through growing up in a family of artists, her career in interior design, and her love of fashion as a former model, Yvonne always had a particular understanding of what beauty was. In fact, this understanding played a role in her fear of traditional breast cancer treatment. The fears of what chemo would do to her body—how she would see herself once her fiery red hair fell out and her striking eyebrows thinned—were ones Yvonne overcame by finding a new definition of beauty along her journey.
“I think there is deep beauty in this path...even in chemo when you lose the hair, there is an opportunity to discover a much deeper beauty within, and a beauty without," Yvonne said. “I said [to myself], ‘I’m going through chemo, but that doesn’t mean I have to lose my beauty, my beauty is just changing.’ And it’s the same with my art; I start with something that’s given to me or broken, and I say ‘What can I make out of that?’”
She found her own sense of beauty by experimenting with wigs and turbans, eventually creating her own personal style she coined as “Chemo Chic”. Using her fashion as an art form to amplify herself, Yvonne found “beauty in the imperfection” and has been able to find power in herself, her scar, and her journey. In fact, she says if it were not for her breast cancer, she likely would not have found the sense of internal and external beauty she’s developed today.
“I’m 61 years old now, I can face anyone without makeup, and I feel very beautiful. I appreciate my own beauty so much more than I ever did when I was in my ‘prime’,” Yvonne said. “This path has been a very empowering path of [defining], ‘What is my beauty?”
Yvonne hasn’t explicitly associated her art with her breast cancer, but in retrospect she sees that she created her most powerful work while embarking on her Hero’s Journey. And although this journey is ongoing, Yvonne cannot say that future art will reflect her breast cancer experience in the same way that Fragmented Beauty and Blanc de Blanc collections did. Instead, she will have a new experience, a new story, to drive her genius.
“These series are part of that time frame, in that life...[my breast cancer] is done and over with. I cannot recreate that art now, because I am a different person now.”
Fashion, cooking, writing, and pursuing new mediums of art with her husband, Ron, have been Yvonne’s most recent tools in expressing the current phase of her journey. No matter what the medium, Yvonne plans to continue using artistic means to exercise the ongoing spirituality of her experience. “[My art] is going to evolve,” as will her journey. In building her legacy and sharing her path, Yvonne’s most resounding messages are ones of power, strength, courage, love, and dignity.
For more information on mammograms, breast self-examinations, and early detection of breast cancer, visit https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/early-detection-of-breast-cancer/
Click here for more information on how to advocate for yourself and your loved ones in the face of inadequate or inequitable healthcare.