Mandala art brings comfort to Alabama woman’s fight with metastasized breast cancer

Mandala art brings comfort to Alabama woman’s fight with metastasized breast cancer
Beautiful shapes in vibrant colors spring from Sharon Cook's hands as she creates mandala art at home in Cleveland, Alabama. The ancient art form has been a balm for Cook, who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018. She has taught mandala to breast cancer groups and shown her framed pieces at public libraries in Blountsville and Oneonta. (Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

In the midst of her breast cancer battle, Sharon Cook found emotional healing and a special joy in mandala.

A happy smile lights Cook’s face as she does mandala. (Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

The art form mandala – which means circle, in Sanskrit – is recognized for its spiritual connection to wholeness. Cook describes mandala as an avenue for calmness, creativity and positivity – qualities she needed in summer 2018 as she began treatments for stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

“Mandalas represent wholeness and healing as they represent harmony and balance in life and in your body,” said Cook, 72, a clinical psychologist. “Because of this, and for ages, the art of making mandalas has been an aid in healing, a tool to return to balance and health. And, that’s what it has been for me.”

Making mandala part of treatment

Turning to the ancient tradition of mandala to create and relax, Cook found a respite from illness and the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. More so, she gained new purpose through her ability to help others through mandala.

“I needed to do something,” Cook said. “I started drawing mandala, and it made me feel peace and calm.

“I wanted other breast cancer patients to be able to do mandala, it offers a great mental escape from all you’re dealing with,” she said. “Making mandalas is one of many ways to achieve a sense of wholeness.”

Cook discovered mandala several years ago, when she bought a book about the ancient tradition. She’d always done art “here and there.”

“It wasn’t my profession, just a pastime,” Cook said. “It’s always been soothing for me.” The self-taught artist has shared mandala during workshops for breast cancer patients at the Blountsville Public Library and the Oneonta Library.

Several days a week, Cook works at the art table downstairs in her home along the Locust Fork River, applying colored pencil to black paper to create beautiful, vibrant designs. Her husband, Steve, framed 12 of her drawings where they’ll be seen as one enters the home, immediately in view of visitors.

Every piece is unique: Cook always begins her drawings at the center of the paper, working outward by creating patterns. Sometimes, the verdant landscape of her backyard inspires her; other times, it’s the deep blue hues of a sunlit sky.

“I’ve copied ancient pieces,” Cook said. “I’ve sometimes come up with my own designs. When I didn’t have energy to do a lot, particularly during chemo, this is what I could do.”

In September, Cook led mandala training for staff and volunteers of Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center in Birmingham. Forge employees provide a wide array of support services and free counseling to women and men with breast cancer, along with their families.

It was natural she’d want to share her talents through Forge. The center has been helpful to Cook, particularly after her diagnosis. She attended a two-day retreat in Cullman hosted by Forge for women with metastatic cancer.

“It was very encouraging,” Cook said. “I met women living for 10-plus years with metastatic breast cancer. I learned about coping strategies and humor with cancer, and came away with hope.”

Claire Gray, manager of Community Outreach at Forge, said that she and others enjoyed Cook’s mandala session.

“This has become an artistic practice for Sharon as a means of expression, and she shares it with others as she attributes much of her doing well to her mandala practice,” Gray said.

Shocking find leads to diagnosis

Cook was surprised with her initial finding of cancer. During a self-exam in 2009, she discovered a small tumor close to the chest wall, despite having had a clear mammogram a month earlier.

Lovingly decorated with appliqués made by friends, the ‘comfort blanket’ does its job at home and at UAB Hospital. (Phil Free / Alabama NewsCenter)

Her response was “Why me?” The most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, one of eight females will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Cook endured chemotherapy and radiation, as well as a partial mastectomy. Working to keep a positive attitude, she didn’t let treatment hinder her life.

“My identity was focused on being a survivor,” Cook said. “I didn’t think much of dying, but I did cut back on my professional life as a clinical psychologist, and increased volunteer work, hobbies, travel and time with family and friends. I had eight years of a full and very active life, and I almost forgot that I was a survivor of breast cancer.”

However, in April 2018, Cook developed a dry cough, a symptom that her breast cancer had returned and metastasized to the lining of her lungs and diaphragm. Before re-diagnosis, the Cooks traveled the world, hiking and snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands.

“My husband and I were totally traumatized,” she said. “Metastatic breast cancer is a whole different ballgame. The only treatment is a harsher version of chemotherapy every three weeks, to continue indefinitely. The worst symptoms are diarrhea, terrible fatigue, difficulty eating, weight loss and a continuing cough and shortness of breath.

“This time I have been really sick,” Cook said. “This second diagnosis has changed my life in profound ways: It’s taken a toll on my formerly vibrant, active self on many days. There are some good days, and I continue to participate in life as much as I can.” For example, she and her husband helped host Kids Day on the River through Friends of the Locust Fork River.

One can respond to a serious illness in three ways, Cook believes: with fear and depression; anger and bitterness; or hope and strength. She chose the third.

“It is very much a conscious choice,” she said. “I think attitude matters greatly in coping with an illness like metastatic breast cancer.”

Cook is thankful for her outstanding medical team at UAB Hospital, a supportive group of friends and her husband, who does as much possible to help make her life manageable during treatment.

Using mandala to beautify backyard

Cook and her husband have even incorporated mandala to their large backyard. Steve added large rock monoliths that harken to the couple’s memories of visiting England’s iconic Stonehenge.

“We became totally enchanted with the stone circles, or henges, such as Stonehenge,” Cook said. “To walk in one is a spiritual experience – it’s a link to the past and the sun and stars.

“Like my mandalas, these stone circles center you,” Cook said with a smile. “They seem to put life into a bigger perspective – these huge stone monoliths can be seen as huge mandalas. We came home and built one that we call the Blackburn Henge. My husband and his son coaxed 12 stones, some weighing more than 500 pounds, up from the Blackburn Fork that runs around our property.”

Along with her family, Cook’s many friends have helped sustain her. Seeing her art, they encouraged her to show the framed pieces.

“My friends saw it and got excited,” she said.

Lovingly decorated with appliqués made by friends, the ‘comfort blanket’ does its job at home and at UAB Hospital. (Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

Her female friends bestowed her with an invaluable gift: a handmade “comfort blanket.” As she undergoes chemo every three weeks indefinitely – until it’s no longer effective or she can no longer tolerate it – Cook’s friends wanted to support her.

“The infusion room at UAB is chilly,” Cook said. “I asked for a blanket, and 23 dear friends appliqued a blanket with their love and prayers. It’s beautiful. I take it to infusion every time, and it’s a comfort that counters the chilly feelings.”

Finding joy in her journey

When Cook was so sick last fall, she put her affairs in order and didn’t expect to see spring.

“But I did and every day is glorious,” she said. “Even with hard challenges like cancer, even things like this, you can get a gift out of it. I’ve always been someone who appreciates life, and this spring was particularly special.”

She made a point of going outside and touching the world outdoors: plants, flowers, trees and rocks … even the grass.

“I’m trying to share what helps me to help other people,” she said. “That’s the important part of this. Pay attention to the sunrise or flowers or friends visiting, or whatever you can find to smile about. A positive, hopeful attitude does improve quality of life.”

Editor’s note: Cook will teach a two-hour mandala class for breast cancer support groups in Jefferson or Blount counties. To request a class for your group, contact [email protected].

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