Art is a creative outlet and opportunity for expression. Whether to illustrate one’s joy, sorrow, faith or fears, art is a form of communication that can’t be expressed in a post on Facebook or conveyed during a phone call.
For Jeanette Minnich, retired U.S. Air Force colonel, her editorial cartoons — a reflective collection she calls her ‘cancer diaries’ — have allowed her to vent the emotions that came with a cancer diagnosis. Her art chronicled her cancer journey for loving — and persistent — friends and family members. As a bonus, it helped Minnich discover joy and humor during a defeating time.
Grappling with an unexpected cancer diagnosis
In 2017, during a routine colonoscopy, doctors found a cancerous tumor in Minnich’s colon. She was told it was an early-stage tumor and soon after, it was surgically removed.
“I had it, and a week later it was gone,” she said.
Two years later, Minnich went to see her new doctor at UCHealth because of a persistent cough. She thought she had allergies, but a chest X-ray showed multiple spots in her lungs. Her earlier colon cancer had metastasized to Stage 4.
“Dr. Kemme told me right from the start, we can slow its progression and do what we can, but we can’t cure it.”
When cancer spreads to multiple sites, treatment can shrink cancer for a while, decreasing symptoms and prolonging life, but with so many cancer cells present, they become resistant to any treatments currently available to eliminate it, explained Dr. Douglas Kemme, medical oncologist with UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinics in northern Colorado.
It was crushing news for Minnich and Don Ellis, her husband of 30-plus years, and the rest of her family, which included their daughter, Venetia, 26, and son, Jonathan, 24.
“When you’re sent reeling with an unexpected diagnosis, you reach out to your circle who has had cancer and been through treatment, and that’s exactly what happened,” Minnich said.
She accepted much of the advice she got from her circle, added in her own experiences, and began to etch the experiences onto paper.
Art as a therapeutic outlet during cancer treatment
After her first chemotherapy session, Minnich’s cartoons came to her quickly.
In one cartoon strip, Minnich is in blue jeans and a red top, smiling and holding a goblet into the air. “I’m here for my port,” it reads. The next panel shows Minnich lying in a bed, her shirt collar pulled down. A person in green scrubs and a mask is inserting a ‘port’ into her upper chest. It reads: “Tell the concierge, I’m VERY disappointed!”
“Doing the cartoons was something my husband encouraged because I needed to find some joy,” Minnich said. “It seemed like for my mental health, as I was starting chemotherapy, trying to find humor in the situation would be good for me.”
UCHealth provides mental and physical health resources for patients during and after their cancer journeys. The goal of patient-centered cancer care is to eliminate a patient’s worry through the complexity of cancer care, so they can concentrate on getting well. Nutritional services, financial and emotional counseling and support groups are part of comprehensive care. Social workers also help patients connect to community resources, including financial assistance, while patient navigators serve as advocates and educators for patients. Access to integrative medicine, which provides evidence-based interventions like acupuncture, yoga and massages, is also available.
Minnich took advantage of some services but, at home, she used art to promote her own well-being and to inform others about her journey.
In another cartoon strip, one panel shows Minnich washing her hands after chemotherapy, which induced neuropathy. “Eek! Cold water!” The next shows her holding a spoon. “Eek! Cold spoon!” The next panel shows her pulling down the sheets to get into bed. “Eek! Cold sheets!” In the last panel, Minnich is wearing a long crystal-blue dress, holding her arms out in a well-known “Elsa” pose from the Disney movie, Frozen. It reads, “I am definitely NOT Elsa.” An Asterix expands her thought, reading, “The cold bothers me immensely.”
Minnich found that creating art helped her forget her troubles.
Finding joy in pastime activities during treatment
Minnich had always enjoyed drawing but her “practical parents” encouraged her to pursue a more stable career. Wanting to see the world, she joined the U.S. Air Force in 1978 after graduating with a communications degree from California Lutheran University. She pursued and earned a master’s while stationed in various places. She taught at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where she met her husband and became the stepmother of three children.
She spent most of her military career as a public affairs officer and used her artistic skill to create posters or line art for newspapers. She was stationed in many places, including Japan and Washington, D.C.
As a mother, she enjoyed scrapbooking when she wasn’t busy with Cub Scouts, Brownies, band boosters and serving on parent committees. Minnich retired after 24 years in the Air Force and moved to Loveland, Colorado. She continued to be active in church, singing in the choir and helping with vacation bible camps.
“My life has been very blessed,” Minnich said.
Using art to communicate to others during a difficult time
Minnich’s created lifelong friendships during her Air Force career and travels around the globe.
“I have a lot of friends on Facebook from all stages of my life,” she said. “I wanted a way to let people know what’s happening without it being scary or highly technical.”
She began posting her cartoons on her Facebook page.
“I started getting a lot of positive feedback: ‘Thanks for letting us know what it’s like going through this process,’” Minnich explained. “And it also helped people discover what kinds of things would be helpful.”
Every few weeks, Minnich would post a personal cartoon that addressed where she was with her treatment and/or how her condition might have changed, or when nothing had changed.
“Forcing myself to look at the humor in my situation and having the time spent drawing transports me out of worry and concern to pleasure,” she said. “And it was something that helped (friends and family) understand my cancer journey. Anytime you feel like you’re helping others understand a frightening disease that affects so many people, that’s a good thing.”
Her friends took notice — one in particular.
Artwork displayed at the Military Women’s Memorial gallery
Retired Lt. Col. Cynthia Scott-Johnson had served under Minnich when the two were stationed at The Pentagon. They continued to stay connected via Facebook.
Scott-Johnson co-founded Uniting US, a nonprofit that works to inspire, empower and unite the veteran community through the healing power of art. She was inspired by Minnich’s cancer diaries and asked if she’d be willing to share them in her “Summer with the Arts” exhibition, which displayed work from veterans across the country at the Military Women’s Memorial gallery at the official entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
With help from her daughter Venetia, Minnich transferred her work onto posters that were exhibited at the gallery. Before the exhibit ended in late September 2021, Minnich, Ellis and Venetia went to Washington, D.C. The couple met up with her son, Jonathan, who works in Washington.
“I’d been to D.C. multiple times to see my son in the past five to six years, but my daughter hadn’t been there since first grade. And none of us had seen the Women’s Memorial,” Minnich said. “It was a good opportunity to let them know and appreciate women’s contributions to the military service, which so often is behind the scenes and hidden.”
Minnich also attended the ceremony to recognize her and 49 other artists featured in the exhibition. She was presented with a quilt made by the Quilts of Honor veterans group.
Expanding her art world
Since the ceremony, Minnich has been working in other mediums. She recently unveiled a bronze statue of a dancer, which now graces her garden.
“As you can see, she is standing on a treble clef because dance is music personified to me,” Minnich said. “When I listen, especially to classical music, my brain choreographs dances all the time. I was pretty lousy at ballet, but am totally enamored by the grace and expressiveness of the dance form.
“I know we don’t really know what heaven is like, but I’m hoping to be able to dance beautifully there.”
The reality of incurable cancer weighs heavy on Minnich’s mind. Using art to express emotion has helped and counseling services from the cancer care program have also helped her and her husband.
“The cancer diagnosis has made me more intentional about seeing and communicating with friends and family,” she said. “Although I’m not always ‘in the moment’ appreciating what I have, my life has been very blessed.”