The Art of Healing

For someone with cancer, the days can be challenging—contending with a diagnosis, demanding treatments and a myriad of emotions only scratches the surface of what someone may go through. For the last 14 years, the Zuker family—led by Susan and her sons Jonathan and Matthew—has made it their mission to provide respite for cancer patients through their  organization, the Conquer Cancer Coalition. “Cancer patients have long, routine days,” explains Executive Director Jonathan Zuker. “If you can give them something along the way that is a
distraction and colors their day in a more positive light, then that ends up sticking with them above anything else.”

Through what they describe as “small gestures of goodwill,” the Zukers are driven to create positive moments in the lives of cancer patients— whether it is a hand-delivered gift card or an afternoon touring the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts. “It gives everyone an afternoon off from what they have to deal with in life,” says Jonathan.

They draw their inspiration from the family’s late patriarch, Michael, who passed away from cancer in 2004. In the wake of his terminal diagnosis, he remained positive and cheerful, which inspired the creation of the coalition and set the tone for its mission. In addition to their one-on-one gifts to patients, they also built a community of support for those affected by cancer with the creation of the Conquer Cancer license plates and by constructing the Garden of Hope at Boston’s City Hall.

“These are people who might classify themselves as cancer patients during the day but in class we all get to be artists and come together for a different reason. It is a catalyst for good memories.” — Executive Director Jonathan Zuker

Along their journey, the Zuker family learned about Boston Medical Center’s Cancer Care Center and immediately felt a connection and an eagerness to help. “We sensed BMC’s mission the second we walked through the doors,” says Susan. “There is just an extraordinary team of people carrying out exceptional care without exception.” In collaboration with Bob David, manager of BMC’s Cancer Support Services, the group brainstormed ways to brighten the days of BMC’s patients. Jonathan, an artist, came up with the idea of a pop-up art studio and painting classes. “It’s a great way to bring people together,” he says. “These are people who might classify themselves as cancer patients during the day but in class we all get to be artists and come together for a different reason. It is a catalyst for good memories.”

To reach as many people as possible, Jonathan sets up his studio outside of BMC’s chemotherapy clinic. As soon as patients and visitors step off the elevator, they are met with an expansive display of canvas paintings, including scenes of sailboats and flowers. Within moments they are  captivated by the art, which stirs conversations—and smiles. “It’s a real diversion for patients,” notes Bob. “Usually when people come to the clinic it’s not for a happy reason. Interacting with Jonathan and his art pulls people out of their expectations for the day.”

The awe quickly turns into engaging conversations, and Jonathan has even developed a fan base of sorts. “One of our patients will stay here for hours because he enjoys the interaction so much,” says Bob. He adds, “A little girl once watched him through the waiting room window for the longest time. He continued to paint, knowing she was watching. When her family member’s appointment was over, she went right up to him, gave him a drawing of her own with a note saying he was her favorite artist.”

The Conquer Cancer Coalition has become more than a valuable addition to the offerings of BMC’s Cancer Support Services—it has become a symbol of hope for patients. “It’s incredible when you touch a life and it touches you back,” explains Susan, a cancer survivor herself. “We just want to play a role in the fight against cancer—all cancers—and we feel lucky to be a part of the BMC family.”

“When you go through cancer you’re never alone,” concludes Jonathan. “That’s at the heart of what we do.”