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Art therapy helped a patient share her true feelings about cancer

contributed by Daniel Ellman; video by Bob Felts

Stand tall and find the light

Lesli Bailey was going through the most challenging time of her life. Already struggling with a difficult relationship in 2016, Lesli was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer that had spread through her abdomen to her liver. She was given one to four years to live.

So she moved from her home in Chicago to be closer to family in Michigan — and the care available to her at U-M Health.

“She had so much stress in her life at that time,” said Kari Sawle, Lesli’s sister. “But she’s a fighter and we knew that she would put everything she could into fighting her cancer while continuing to make the world a better place.”

Finding an outlet

Lesli had always been artistic and creative, but it was a hobby she hadn’t touched in more than 20 years.

During her treatment, she attended an art therapy workshop at the Rogel Cancer Center. The program is run by the Patient and Family Support Services (PFSS) art therapy program and involves certified art therapists who help patients integrate artistic expression into the healing process, a practice that complements standard cancer treatment.

It was the spark Lesli needed.

“I took to painting as kind of a meditation, to help paint out my feelings,” Lesli wrote in 2019. “Some [pieces] are self-reflections, the rebirth of a new chapter in my life. Some are painted in honor of a loved one.”

Today, those pieces — along with another series she created called Subliminal Sunflowers, which sends a message about her true feelings regarding cancer — are on display in the Voices Art Gallery on the B1 level of the Rogel Cancer Center. The gallery is run by the Patient and Family Support Services group at Rogel and Lesli’s work will be showing through the end of May.

“It was always Lesli’s dream to have her artwork on display at Rogel once she passed,” Kari said. “I think she wanted to show other patients what is possible in even the toughest times. And how much beauty exists in this world.”

A lasting legacy

The exhibition serves another purpose. It is Lesli’s lasting legacy at Michigan Medicine.

“While she was given only 1-4 years to live when she was first diagnosed, Lesli made it more than seven years,” Kari said. “Those years were a gift — as are these paintings that she has left behind.”

One painting, in particular, hits Kari hard. It is of two orchids, one embracing the other — representing Lesli and Kari’s relationship as sisters.

“Lesli was so special. And the message she has left with all of us is so special. Her flowers represent strength and beauty.

“So be a sunflower on even the darkest days. If you do that, you will stand tall and find the light.”

Learn more about the Voices Art Gallery and the Art Therapy Program

Voices Art Gallery

Art Therapy