Laurie Nelson will talk about cancer, chemo and hospice options if you want, but clearly she would rather talk about art.
And who can blame her?
Today, she will display her first-ever entry at the annual ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
After eagerly visiting ArtPrize every year since it began in 2009, she can’t wait to see her photograph hanging among the other works entered in the event that transforms the city into an art gallery.
“I hope I still feel good enough to be with the entry a little bit at least,” she said. “That will be fun―just to observe people’s reactions and to tell them how it all came about.”
Nelson, 66, learned she had ovarian cancer almost a year ago.
Sitting in a café at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion recently, she discussed her particular balance of art and medicine. Across the table sat her sister, Linda Trudeau, described by Nelson as her “caretaker, pill-dispenser, rooter-on-er and egger-on-er.”
Nelson grew up in Battle Creek, received a bachelor of fine arts degree and moved to Grand Rapids in 1993 to work as a graphic artist for RBC Ministries. Since retiring in 2014, she has devoted more time to her passion for fine art and photography.
In her artist’s eyes, all the world is a work of art.
“What really gets me is God’s creativity,” she said. “How did he ever think of all this? And then how does he have the power to make it all come about? It’s just so fascinating. So creative.
“All the way from giant elephants to the way he made the human body. There are just so many really tight tolerances as far as our solar system, our light source―you can’t get to the end of the complexity.
“God is amazing.”
That sense of wonder and curiosity comes through even in her treatment for cancer, said Mae Zakhour, MD, her gynecologic oncologist.
“She’s a very unique and interested individual. She always comes in with a lot of very insightful questions,” Dr. Zakhour said. “It’s really been a pleasure to take care of her.”
Nelson’s medical symptoms started last year. She had a distended belly and felt pain in her abdomen. She saw a doctor for possible intestinal issues.
By mid-October 2016, the pain became so severe she went to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital. A CT scan revealed the ovarian cancer throughout the abdominal area.
Dr. Zakhour later performed a laparoscopy to assess the spread of the cancer.
“She had very extensive metastatic disease,” she said.
Nelson underwent six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by surgery. She took maintenance chemotherapy, but the cancer continued to grow.
In August, a complication landed her in the hospital for two weeks. Tests showed the cancer had spread to her lungs. By the time she went home, she chose to discontinue treatment and start hospice care.
Talking to Dr. Zakhour, they decided if she felt better after she returned home, she would resume treatment.
“A lot of times, when people get in their own environment, they eat better and gain a little more strength,” Dr. Zakhour said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
On Sept. 6, two weeks before ArtPrize, Nelson met with Dr. Zakhour to plan her next cycle of chemotherapy.
“I do feel pretty good,” she said after her appointment. “It’s really a blessing to feel this good. It’s kind of unexpected.”
A favorite photo
She looked eagerly ahead to the kick-off for ArtPrize, which runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 8.
She had been thinking about entering the festival for a year before she finally made the decision in June. Two days before the deadline, a friend helped her fill out her application.
She provided a list of her preferred venues and waited to see where she would be matched. To her surprise and delight, the Women’s City Club responded in a few hours with an acceptance.
“It’s my favorite venue,” she said. “I was very excited to be accepted by my first choice of venue. It was very gratifying.”
Her entry, “We Buy Sell Trade Dicker,” is a black-and-white photo of a display in front of an antique store. Her entry tells the story of how the dog in the photo―and its owners―came together to create an intriguing and playful picture.
“It’s always been a favorite,” she said. “It’s so unique. I want it to be seen.”
Her sister said a group of close friends have pitched in, forming “Team Laurie” to help her manage ArtPrize tasks as well as handle medical needs.
Nelson knows her health could change at any time.
“It’s amazing how fast things can go south,” she said.
But for now, she feels strong and hopes her healthy momentum will continue.
“I’m a Christian. I’m depending on God,” she said. “He will be with me. I know I belong to him whether I’m still on Earth or on the other side.
“I’m not in a hurry to leave. You just try to make good decisions based on what you know.”