Battling childhood cancer artfully

A fundraising calendar includes the work of two Maryland girls

Spirit of Sharing

December 22, 2005|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

Becky Diller drew a field of purple flowers and a big-eyed dragonfly. Danielle Rich drew a kaleidoscopic, star-studded angel holding a banner that urges, "Smile!"

"A good attitude and a smile," Danielle used to tell herself while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, "will cure everything."

The artwork by the two Maryland girls - Becky lives in Oakland and Danielle in Silver Spring - is part of a colorful calendar full of hot-air balloons, orange cats, robins, barbecue grills, Easter baskets, giraffes, a red rose laid across piano ivories and one beaming family of six at a beach in the month of July (love the shades, Dad).

They are scenes of better days - days finally spent back at home - images of healthier times.

The artwork is by more than 65 cancer patients, survivors and siblings, 12 months' worth of hopeful, happy images by children who have lived through just the opposite. The 2006 calendar is a fundraiser for CureSearch, a Bethesda-based foundation that represents the Children's Oncology Group, which is considered the world's largest childhood cancer research organization.

"I had cancer when I was 11, and I remember that it was important even at that young age to have a way to share your experience with others - to give your experience meaning," says Kelly Cotter, 29, a spokeswoman for CureSearch, who helped create the calendar. "Much of the feelings these children encounter is often more than most adults will ever encounter."

Art has been therapy for many cancer patients. Whether their artwork appears on a cancer organization's greeting card, T-shirt or calendar or just hangs on a bedroom wall, the act of creating is often cathartic. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is just one hospital that offers art therapy to its patients. "Many participants find new metaphors and meanings to express, contain, and transform the sometimes difficult experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment," says the center's Web site.

Danielle Rich and Becky Diller weren't exactly looking for new metaphors and meanings. The only thing they really had in mind was to draw colorful, happy pictures for other kids to enjoy. Neither's artwork was selected as the display piece for one of the 12 months, but they appear as smaller decorative touches amid the grid of the days.

But since the two calendar girls have both lived with cancer, they certainly can live without their artwork rating its own month.

Becky at home

This is the Western Maryland house that canoes - and John Diller's hands - built. In Oakland, Diller, his wife, Marilyn, and their 12-year-old daughter Becky sit surrounded by a high-beamed fireplace, King Kong's Christmas tree and framed children's artwork. John builds racing canoes and sells the lightweight beauties all over the country. Becky likes fishing, not canoes. The family has worked through this.

They have had more pressing issues.

When Becky was 3, her parents noticed how quickly she bruised. "She always wanted her mommy, which was not like her," says her mother. Becky was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia or AML, a cancer that usually occurs in people over 25. Becky's chance of survival was as low as 30 percent, her father says. After months of chemotherapy, a relapse in 1998, and then a successful bone marrow transplant (her older brother was the donor), Becky recovered. Yearly checkups continue to bring good news.

When she was sick, Becky began to draw sunny, spring pictures. "I like dragonflies," she says, "and, of course, I like purple." So, in one picture, she drew a large purple dragonfly. "I use something big to cover up the space." Good canvas management.

The dragonfly picture was submitted last year to CureSearch, which contacted the Dillers this month. Their daughter's artwork would be somewhere in the 2006 calendar. "Maybe you got to work your way up to get a month," her father jokes.

Lately, Becky's interests have veered from art. "She's writing a book about animals," her mother says, something along the lines of Beatrix Potter.

There is no shortage of material in the Diller household. A hamster named Rascal skitters in Becky's hand, as a substantial rabbit named Clover nudges her for attention. There's the family dog Opie and a cat named Mittens, another cat upstairs and mention of a third cat. There's mention of keeping the cats away from the hamster.

Becky Diller might donate a picture next year for a 2007 calendar. It could be another dragonfly or maybe a hamster. Something sunny, something big to cover up the space.

Something that is probably not a canoe.

`I'm always smiling'

It was not anorexia, as some suspected. Danielle Rich of Silver Spring was losing weight fast - down to 47 pounds four year ago. "She was dying in front of me. I was a wreck," says her mother, Marcy Rich. No, something else was wrong with her then- 10-year-old daughter.

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