SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine — When Sally Loughridge was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, the initial shock gave way to a rush of uncomfortable emotions.
The otherwise healthy South Bristol woman was fortunate that her cancer was caught early, but a successful surgery would be followed by weeks of radiation treatments. A lifelong painter and retired clinical psychologist, Loughridge knew she needed a plan for steadying herself through the harrowing ordeal.
“I decided that I wanted to have a strategy for me that paralleled the radiation treatment,” she said. “All of that, having cancer and needing treatment, was out of my control.”
Just before the radiation treatments were scheduled to begin, 33 in all, Loughridge walked into a Portland arts supply store. She was hit with an idea for an oil painting series, a creative seed that, unbeknownst to her at the time, would later culminate in a book.
“I said, ‘I’m going to buy 33 5-by-7-inch little panels,’” Loughridge said. “It just all came into my head, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
She would paint one panel after each treatment — not to exhibit and sell like her other work, but for herself.
“I had rules for myself,” Loughridge said. “Twenty minutes max, do them right after I come home, don’t plan ahead, don’t draw. No planning, because I wanted them to be spontaneous and emotionally expressive. I didn’t want to get into trying to make a nice painting, it wasn’t about that.”
She went directly home after the radiation treatment and painted, sitting down with a cup of tea. For each painting, Loughridge wrote down a few sentences of her thoughts, along with a title.
She did her best to schedule her treatments for the early morning, so she could finish each installment and still have the remainder of the day to tend to household tasks or her other artwork. Loughridge exhibits her art along the coast and serves as president of the board of directors for the Pemaquid Group of Artists.
“It left me the rest of the day forward to be my regular me,” she said.
Halfway through her treatments, Loughridge painted No. 17, an image of a cobalt blue arrow pointing toward a brighter section of flesh-toned pink on the canvas. She was excited about her progress, and felt the arrow represented her way forward. But as she examined the painting, it dawned on Loughridge that the arrow appeared to be bisecting a breast, no doubt her own.
Her subconscious had grabbed hold of her brush, she said.
“I thought I was happy and positive, and I was, but I was simultaneously anxious about what is the future and am I still going to have breast cancer?” Loughridge said.
Friends and family, after seeing her evocative paintings and captions, encouraged Loughridge to turn the work into a book. “Rad Art: A Journey through Radiation Treatment,” a 96-page hardcover book, was recently published by the American Cancer Society. Loughridge’s first painting in the series, a moody depiction of her right breast, graces the cover.
Today, Loughridge is healthy. She visited her surgeon on Tuesday and left relieved.
“I feel really good,” she said. “They gave me a thumbs-up, it was all negative.”
Loughridge said she hopes that by publishing her once-private paintings, others facing tough diagnoses will find comfort or inspiration.
“I’m just so in awe of the restorative power of art,” she said.
“Rad Art: A Journey through Radiation Treatment” is available for purchase for $16.95 at cancer.org/bookstore, by calling (800) 227-2345, or at many online and retail booksellers.