Looking over tables full of used treasures at a rural Wisconsin garage sale, Yael Simons discovered what she was searching for: an old wooden tennis racket. The sporting equipment was not so she could serve and volley on a court – she had a more creative purpose in mind.
An amateur artist when not treating patients, Simons, a hematology and oncology fellow in her final year at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, felt the racket would make a unique canvas for her latest creation. Simons is one of nearly 40 artists who lent their talents to the “Brushes With Cancer” campaign, where artists are paired with individuals touched by cancer to create artwork inspired by their journey.
Simons’ piece, titled “Aces,” will be showcased at a virtual gala on Nov. 14, where all of the works are auctioned to fund the not-for-profit organization Twist Out Cancer, a group that provides psychosocial support to cancer survivors and their loved ones through creative arts programming.
The first oncologist who has participated in the program as an artist, Simons was matched with Leah Jacoby, a 22-year-old diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in February 2019 during her sophomore year at the University of Arizona. A competitive tennis player from suburban Vernon Hills, Jacoby participated on the school’s club team, but the disease forced her off the court.
“In my first meeting with Leah, I was in awe of her strength and openness in sharing her journey,” said Simons, who uses art to alleviate her stress as a medical professional. “I learned that tennis had been an integral part of her life, and ironically it led to the discovery of her diagnosis. I knew I needed to incorporate tennis into the piece. I had the canvas, now all I needed was an image.”
Over the seven-month project, Simons talked frequently with Jacoby, and one of the themes the oncologist kept hearing was rebirth. That sparked an idea.
“When I think of regrowth, I think of flowers,” Simons said. “So I decided to design a bouquet using several varieties that represented her treatment and cure.”
Simons, who completed courses in painting and printmaking while an undergraduate at New York’s Barnard College, believed an embroidered piece on a tennis racket would be unique. There was only one small detail: she had never embroidered anything. Undeterred, she learned various techniques from a friend and through YouTube videos, and began stitching.
The bouquet, comprised of flowers with vibrant hues – orange, pink, blue, yellow – contained, among others, a Madagascar periwinkle, a flower that produces two potent alkaloids, vinblastine and vincristine, used to treat various cancers, including Jacoby’s. A daisy, which symbolizes new beginnings and hope, was also incorporated, as was ranunculus, representing joy and happiness.
Underneath the flowers, Simons intertwined roots between the racket’s strings. Roots play an important part in a plant’s growth, and Simons incorporated them to depict Jacoby’s support system – family and friends who were instrumental on her road to recovery. The racket’s handle was adorned with light green plastic bracelets made by a family friend emblazoned with the phrase “Leah kicked cancer’s ace.”
As a competitive athlete, Jacoby often felt aches and pains, but the discomfort she began experiencing three years ago in her back and leg was different. Initially she believed she was overworking her body playing tennis. Jacoby became easily fatigued, and while she rarely napped, she would come home from classes and workouts and crawl into bed and sleep.
Visiting her physician on another matter, she described her ailments. Bloodwork was ordered, and after learning the numbers were abnormal, she was referred to a sports physician. Following an examination, she was immediately sent to the emergency room. Two days later, instead of attending classes and workouts, Jacoby was being treated for a disease she thought an active 19-year-old couldn’t contract.
“The week before my diagnosis I played in a tennis tournament and felt fine,” Jacoby said. “I didn’t know a tumor was growing inside me.”
The tumor fractured Jacoby’s back, and the leg pain was caused by a blood clot. She also experienced kidney failure. The next five weeks were spent at Diamond Children’s Hospital in Tucson, Ariz. She eventually returned to Chicago to continue her treatments.
Jacoby’s studies were interrupted by chemotherapy, and while in the hospital she witnessed all of the nurses who were helping patients, like her. Her initial career goal was to become an elementary school teacher, but she has since decided to pursue nursing, transferring to the University of Illinois Chicago to fulfill her dream.
“Nurses have such a positive impact on people. They really make a difference in people’s lives,” Jacoby said. “I’ve always wanted to help people, and what better way than to become a nurse.”
Since teaming together on their art piece, Jacoby and Simons have become fast friends. When they met to unveil Simons’ work, Jacoby was awed. She loved the work so much she bought it.
“I was nervous to see it,” she said. “It was beautiful. I just stared at it for a while. What I really like is there is no one way to interpret it. Every person will look at it differently. I love what the flowers represent. They may wilt and the weather may cause damage, but they come back after getting knocked down. I also like how the roots represent my friends and family, my support system.
“Now I have this art piece for the rest of my life. It encompasses my cancer journey. I love it.”
Though she may not physically see her artwork again, Simons has lasting memories of the experience.
“It’s been eye opening getting to know Leah and delving into all the components of her cancer journey that I often don’t get to see as a provider,” Simons said. “I continue to think about this experience as I treat cancer patients every day. I know I will be a better physician because of it.”