Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Laura Ross-Paul: Breasts and beyond

The veteran Portland artist's July show at NINE Gallery springs from her own breast cancer and the pioneering treatment she chose to defeat it.

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Painting by Laura Ross-Paul.


Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER


“When you find out that you are ill, your priorities are shattered. One moment you are in a boat, and the next moment you are in the water. … Once you’ve experienced being mortally ill and you’ve come back, you have learned something that’s worth knowing.” – Susan Sontag

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

THESE DAYS I seem to meet survivors wherever I turn. I can’t decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing: good for the outcome, bad for the frequency of affliction. Yet every cancer survivor who I’ve encountered, or for that matter anyone diagnosed with any life-threatening illness, can relate to Sontag’s words. They were uttered in an interview in 1988 when she had successfully navigated a return to the living from metastatic breast cancer, and before she was diagnosed a decade later with an unrelated uterine cancer. Ultimately, the treatment required to fight these cancers led to yet another one, t-MDS, or therapy-related myelodysplastic syndrome, a then-untreatable variant of leukemia. She died in 2004.

You are in the boat one moment, and the next you are in the water. The possibility of drowning looms large, but there is still a chance to swim, if you are lucky, strong, determined — and were taught to swim in the first place.

I was thinking of that during my recent visit with Laura Ross-Paul at her studio, meeting the artist for the first time to talk about her upcoming exhibition, The BrEaST Show, at The Nine Gallery (inside Blue Sky Center for Photographic Arts). Ross-Paul found herself in the water in 2003, diagnosed with breast cancer, and after intense research opted for what was then experimental cancer treatment, becoming the very first breast cancer patient in the U.S. to undergo a procedure called cryo-ablation. She has shared what she learned ever since she’s come back on land, as an activist as well as an artist. It’s worthwhile knowledge for the rest of us as well, and the exhibition will provide the perfect forum to get informed in addition to see a painter yield color with admirable abandon.

Artist and cancer survivor Laura Ross-Paul.

Depending on the type of breast cancer, a person’s surgical options are mastectomy (a full removal of the breast), lumpectomy (removal of a small part that contains the tumor), and now cryo-ablation, a surgical procedure that involves inserting a stainless steel probe directly into the tumor. The thin probe carries cold argon gas down an outer tube to the sealed tip of the probe, then the gas expands as it returns through an inner return tube to the gas delivery system. This makes the probe tip extremely cold, which freezes the surrounding tissue into a controlled, spherical shape with safe margins around the tumor to insure that the entire tumor is killed. (You might have encountered a version of this procedure during a visit to the dermatologist, where they use cryo-ablation to freeze off some of the undesirable growth on your skin.)

There are clear advantages to cryosurgery, breast preservation looming large for many women and/or their partners (which turns out to be something of a conundrum: how to proceed if the husband wants breast preservation at all cost, and the wife would like to avoid experimental procedures in the interest of the tried and true, the knife?). Other benefits come in multiple forms: you avoid major surgery with all the potential problems associated with it. Damage to surrounding tissues is limited. It can be used in conjunction with other cancer therapies, including hormone therapies and targeted immunotherapy, which activates our body’s own defenses against the cancer. It is much cheaper (although not all insurance policies cover it) and can be done in a relatively quick in-and-out procedure, often with local anesthesia only, not requiring a hospital stay. And there is some evidence to suggest that the dead cancer cells, absorbed into the body, stimulate the immune system to recognize cancer on further occasions.

The big question, like for any new procedure, is, of course, does it work?

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The answer is as you’d expect: it depends. The great news first (great, because it applies to all cancer types, not just a subset, thus helping the largest number of people): it is an extremely effective palliative approach for patients who cannot be cured of the diseases, but who can receive pain relief by destroying large tumors through freezing, or any tumors in locations that cannot be reached by any other surgical means, when the cancer has spread to the bones or the liver. It can buy time for patients who are too old or otherwise not able to survive conventional surgery.

The good news next: It is an option to cure you from cancer, rid you of the scourge, IF certain conditions apply. On average, the best candidates for this method are patients whose tumors are less than 15 mm, hormone receptor-positive, and HER-2 negative, and NOT metastasized into the lymph system. In other words, if you have a low-risk, non-aggressive cancer that is detected early in its first stages, cryo-ablation is ensuring survival as well as preserving your breast in full. Many clinics and cancer centers in the U.S. are offering the procedure these days, with China having embraced it full-scale and developed specific immunotherapies in conjunction wi th the surgery, as Ross-Paul told me.

There seem to be few side effects, if any; according to the artist, who also received the immunotherapy, she was advised to forgo inoculations for other diseases, which might be a problem in the age of pandemics, or age-related vulnerability to other scourges like shingles and pneumonia. There are certainly research data that show a problem for patients with active cancers undergoing immunotherapy who also received Covid shots: it can lead to averse reactions, including a flare of tumor growth.

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ON MY WAY HOME I was searching for a term that best encapsulated my first impressions of the artist. Spirited, curious, plucky, driven – none seemed to fit the bill, until it dawned on me: undaunted.

As a patient, undaunted. As a pioneer subject for medical research, undaunted. As a pedagogue employing art as social practice, undaunted. And last but not least, as a painter, undaunted. Patient, pioneer, pedagogue, painter: colloquially expressed, the woman has balls.

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

The pun, of course, applies to a recurring motif in the work to be exhibited as well. Balls, spheres, round configurations appear in the paintings as symbols linking to breasts but also the spheres of frozen tissues that saved her life as well as her physical integrity. Pearls of wisdom rain down from various sages emblematic of her learning curve during an extensive period of research to find a way to retain unblemished breasts while staying alive, her husband, award-winning author Alex Paul, and her children foremost on her mind, since she herself was orphaned at a young age.

Balls are on a dress, when exploring the possibilities of many treatment options, trying the freezing bubbles on for size. Balls are stacking up during treatment, patient now enveloped by the argon bubbles of the dress, and balls can be freely juggled, shedding the illness, leaving an impression of joyous return to a more playful life.

Spheres also appear on the cervid companion, for Ross-Paul a symbol of the innocence that is lost when you encounter existential dread. For me it evoked more of a “deer in headlight” reaction, the fear that paralyzes you at times if living with cancer. Wouldn’t want to embrace that. Then again, I’m also on the warpath with these creatures who devour my beloved garden in their nightly visits, so not a neutral observer. Real-life Bambis begone!

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The accumulated work gently guides you through the stages of treatment selection and process, with a focus on the importance of collecting data, having a radar for possibilities, making decisions based on scientific information (for me an example of being “taught how to swim” that I mentioned earlier: it takes an educated person aware of resources and able to discern the quality of information). This is really the part where Ross-Paul’s educational activism comes to the fore — visual pointers so often more effective than a complex written literature on an unfamiliar topic. She communicates ideas that, in turn, allow you to ask questions of your doctor. This is in parallel to They’re Mine and I’m Keeping Them: How Freezing My Breast Saved My Breast, the book that she co-authored with her husband and her doctor, Peter Littrup, M.D., which explains the journey in all of its details.

The painterly work extends to “art as social practice,” a domain that involves participatory engagement between community and artist, when we look at the many portraits she painted in collaboration with sitters who had opted for the experimental treatment, connecting from across the world. In some ways I am reminded of earlier projects that crossed lines between art and education, if on a different scale. Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse in Los Angeles—which was part art installation, part educational facility, part performance space in the 1970s–comes to mind, given its focus on women’s concerns. Portland State University, by the way, has an increasingly recognized Art and Social Practice MFA program, with an archive established in 2018, well worth exploring.

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“There is silver blue, sky blue and thunder blue. Every colour holds within it a soul, which makes me happy or repels me, and which acts as a stimulus. To a person who has no art in him, colours are colours, tones tones … and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range between heaven to hell, just go unnoticed.” – Emil Nolde, from Emil Nolde: Die Farben sind meine Noten.

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

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WHATEVER YOU THINK of Emil Nolde, one of the pioneers of German Expressionism, his work with color reigns supreme. (I have written here about his anti-Semitism, his Nazi-affin politics and the incredible research by art historians that went into unraveling the clash between political identity and art of the painter.) At times his colors not only sing, they scream. No wonder, then, that one of the largest retrospectives of his work, in 2018 at the National Galleries of Scotland, was titled Colour is Lifewhile a 2019 one at the Hamburger Bahnhof — Nationalgalerie der Gegenwart in Berlin, Germany, was called Emil Nolde. A German Legend. The Artist During the Nazi Regime.

The vibrancy and levels of saturation of many of Ross-Paul’s paintings remind me of his work, using electrifying color as a means of communication rather than a tool for verisimilitude. Her exhibits, if you peruse the show in order, will transition from more muted colors to a riotous slate that is the perfect carrier for the emotional palette the artist intends to invoke. When I said earlier that she is an an undaunted painter, I was motivated by the artist’s generous use of pink. Pink on the surface of the paintings, but also on the sides of the canvases which are embedded in some sort of reflective frames that emanate a kind of rosy halo.

Pink is a curious choice for a breast cancer survivor who is also a progressive activist. Before I explain, let me say that I ended up liking the pink more than I had anticipated, or maybe I adored the attitude of an artist who ignores symbolism when it interferes with her sheer love of color and her desire to convey some hope on the horizon. Pink, after all, reflects dawn, the beginning of a new day, not a gentle color slide into the night.

Pink is a color associated with breast cancer since the early 1990s, when Evelyn Lauder (of Estée Lauder) established the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, with pink ribbons becoming a universal symbol for the disease. Of course, the disease had been branded before: the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca, which makes several breast cancer drugs) launched Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985, originally intended to encourage women to get regular mammograms.

What was meant to help address the rising number of cancer diagnoses and deaths (more than 4 million people have a history of breast cancer in the U.S. alone, with 43.700 expected to die from breast cancer in 2023 in this country,) has, alas, become an exercise in pinkwashing. One of the definitions goes along these lines:

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Pinkwasher: (pink’-wah-sher) noun. A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products containing chemicals that are linked to the disease. (Ref.)

It is desire for profit, not compassion or education, that drives the association between products with pink ribbons and inspirational quotes, particularly during October, Breast Cancer Awareness month. Some companies donate a portion of the income to the cause. Others disappear with the proceeds. We are asked to donate with total uncertainty whether the funds arrive at their destination: the patients.

Some of the inspirational words, however, ring true enough that they deserve to be put up on the fridge, where my assorted collection of wisdom resides these days, for the most part.

Breast cancer is a word, not a sentence.

Actually it’s two words. As is undaunted painter, who already in 2003 upon diagnosis decided to take her fate into her own hands and acknowledged that her breast mattered and a mutilation of her body was unacceptable, ceteris paribus where survival was concerned. That goes beyond breasts and balls, into the realm of knowing yourself and being willing to fight for something truly existential. It was certainly the message I took home from her work that reinforced my own beliefs about living with cancer. There is no one way, no right way, no indisputable way of dealing with what ails you. Just like grief (and plenty of that to go around with the loss of body parts, or decimation of life expectancy, or simply energy levels that will never resume the status quo), you have to find an approach that honors who you are and how your values manage to survive. Otherwise you might as well jump off a cliff, instead of into a life net, provided by whatever therapeutic approach you choose.

It’s unclear where she’ll land, but she shows trust that she’ll land alright.” – Laura Ross-Paul, July 17, 2003

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

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The BrEaST Show
  • Laura Ross-Paul
  • July 6-29, 2023
  • Opening: 5-7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 6
  • NINE Gallery (inside Blue Sky Gallery)
  • 122 N.W. Eighth Ave., Portland

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m so appreciative and a bit in awe of Friderike Heuer. This was not an easy subject to write about, especially the medical science part. Not only did Friderike get it right but she managed to incorporate the hurdles cryoablation has had to face in a clear way. And, of course, I am beyond beyond for having my color use compared to Emil Nolde, one of my all time heroes.

  2. I’m a breast cancer survivor of 40-plus years, and I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the suggestion in your article that a husband might want his wife to have breast conserving treatment at all costs. What kind of husband would want that for his beloved? We are women, human beings, not a set of breasts.

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