How Tumor Art is Bringing New Insights to Patients and Doctors How Tumor Art is Bringing New Insights to Patients and Doctors

How Tumor Art is Bringing New Insights to Patients and Doctors

by Sarah Stankorb

September 7, 2013

The result was less a shapeless orb than something akin to a chunk of coral. “They look organic,” said Caraballo, “like sea creatures” with spiculations “like tentacles”—that grow to invade new areas. First there were 3-D prints in ABS plastic, then casts and large-scale bronze pieces, performance pieces, prints. “By externalizing it,” said Caraballo, “I made it a solid. I made it into a rock that couldn’t move or change anymore, metaphorically.”

The tumors became two different types of art. One, small, able to be carried or worn. For a disease that is still often voiced in whispers, cancer could become a conversation piece, a tumor, an invisible thing turned visible and able to be manipulated by a patient. It would also be a way to cut through the remaining taboo surrounding cancer. “I think part of the phobia is that it’s not spoken of enough, or it’s spoken of with fear and trepidation and not in a direct way,” said Farman.

Caraballo explains that they wanted to create a worry bead, an amulet, something to ward off evil spirits. Alternatively, said Caraballo, “it wouldn’t necessarily have to be regarded as anything precious… I almost wanted to give it to the dog to chew on or whatever, throw it in the river, bury it, do a ritual around it. To make it alive outside the body.” Charms, pendants, paper weights and worry beads, in the shape of tumors, can be purchased from the Object Breast Cancer website.

And seeing cancer anew—even for those who spend their days treating and tending to cancer patients—has been a radical shift. Caraballo-farman’s first show of large form tumor sculptures was attended by a number of oncologists and surgeons. Says Farman, “They were kind of struck by something that they hadn’t seen, because although they look at it on a screen, they had never seen it as a full-on object that they could walk around. And it struck them that it should become, not just an art project, but a medical project.”

Caraballo’s doctor, Dr. Alexander Swistel, breast cancer surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, explains that caraballo-farman’s work “absolutely inspired me to re-think how we stage breast cancers.” Generally, Swistel explains, staging is based on uni-dimensional measurements, but the caraballo-farman demonstration of three-dimensional tumor growth “showed me that volume measurement may be more pertinent.”

Based on that observation, and in collaboration with Weill Cornell radiologist Michelle Drotman, the doctor has started a retrospective review to see if traditionally staging malignancies uni-dimensionally resulted in over- or under-treatment, as compared to what would have been prescribed using volumetric, three-dimensional measurements. They are also investigating through clinical trials to see if volumetric measurements could affect oncologists' chemotherapy recommendations. Swistel notes that results are still pending, but “I have no doubt that this may in fact revolutionize the way we think about staging cancer of the breast and other solid tumors as well.”

The desire to see the tumor in its true form initially, says Farman, “wasn’t strictly an artistic impulse, but it came out of an artistic place.” And now art, having imitated disease, could quite possibly have inspired a better way to save lives.

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How Tumor Art is Bringing New Insights to Patients and Doctors