People wearing bio-hazard radiation suits walked into the room carrying a container. The lid opened with a ksssssssssh as it released the freeze-dried smoke. From out of the container they pulled a black pill and handed it to the girl with three-foot long tongs and waited for her to swallow it before leaving the room again.
The only thought going through her head was “Why aren’t I wearing one of those masks?”
“I mean, I had fun with it. What can you do in that situation?” said Danielle Aguilar. “I was in quarantine pretty much. No one wanted to come near me. Even when they brought food, they’d call me to say ‘get away from the door’ and to go to my bed, and then they’d open the door and roll the cart in real quick and close the door and they said to wait a minute to pick up the food so they could walk away from the door on the other side. That’s how radioactive I was.”
Danielle Aguilar is a survivor of thyroid cancer and plans to use her experience as fuel to help others through art therapy.
The doctors could not originally determine that Aguilar had cancer. They knew she had a lesion but could not be certain of what it was until it was removed. Aguilar couldn’t stress enough how important it is for a person to trust what their body is telling them when they feel something may be off.
“The first surgery was to remove the lesion that I had, because they wanted to test it,” Aguilar said. “The biopsy showed that it was not malignant. But because it was strange, they removed it anyway. And then when they got the results of that, then they found that it was cancer.”
Aguilar attributes the cause of her cancer to her bad attitude when she was younger, but she is also able to say with a smile that it is what turned her life around.
“When I got out of the surgery, it was eight hours long. Of course, I wasn’t aware of that because I was knocked out,” Aguilar said. “But I remember waking up with such gratitude that I was awake. And I think that a part of me, I don’t know, left the world or something, and I didn’t know if I was going to come back.”
Art is what helped get Aguilar through such a difficult time, and why she feels that it is a crucial tool to recovery.
“I think there’s, emotionally, a lot of blockages,” Aguilar said. “I’m still learning. But from my experience, because I’m going back to my roots, and learning more about my roots, I feel some sort of liberation. Art, I think, creativity, expressing, thinking are really important to break those blockages.”
Aguilar felt as though her art, and its process, helped her to overcome negative feelings she would experience throughout her life. It was an outlet for her and she recognized how it helped to heal her.
“…It was just a sense that I had in me, that this was meant to happen to me for a reason.” Aguilar said, “And, so, what can I do with it? And I think that’s part of the reason why I want to use art for healing. Because art has been healing for me all my life. If I was sad or nervous or whatever, I’d be in my room painting or drawing, even if it’s just scribbling, you know, making scratchy, not pretty stuff; it didn’t matter. It’s just the movement of creating that releases something. So yeah, it changed me.”
Chicano and psychology studies have brought to light in Aguilar how important art, history and culture are. Being a Mexican-American, and essentially a child of two worlds, she felt a disconnect from who she was. Aguilar was unable to identify or feel comfortable around any group, and she believed this was a large part of what caused her inner turmoil and the cancer.
“I don’t speak Spanish. My family’s Mexican American. My mom speaks Spanish,” Aguilar said, “My dad was born in Mexico, came here when he was two or three years old. So, we’re an American family. But when we’re with other people, or certain people, we feel too Mexican. And then when I’m with Mexican people…I feel too white-washed. And I’m not the only one.”
One of Aguilar’s professors also notes how much has been lost through immigration and a clashing of cultures, and how much is still trying to be regained.
“Many of these students have been disconnected from their cultures (some over generations) due to assimilationist agendas in schools and media primarily in this country and in others as well,” said Professor Silvia Villanueva in an e-mail. “Again, there is a long history of this in the U.S. but it is not a history that is emphasized in mainstream school curricula.”
Aguilar is one of the many who have been through this devastating and life-changing experience. She has proved, if anything, that there can be a light in the darkness.
“I was finding the silver lining,” Aguilar said. “Definitely, I saw a lot of silver, during this experience… It affects all of us, the whole family. And in the most twisted, but honest and amazing way, it brings people together.”
Aguilar and her family never expected for cancer to be a part of their lives. One day, she was just another kid, trying to find her way. The next thing she knew, she was fighting for her life. And at the end of it all, everything became clear.
“I was sick emotionally, and repressed, I kept my feelings to myself,” Aguilar said. “I was kind of a loner. A stereotypical artist: all black, emotional, dark, drug addict, or wannabe drug addict… And then, cancer happened, and it just completely changed my outlook on life.”
Aguilar didn’t take horrible news and give up; she did everything she could to change it. And she feels it in her heart that she needs to help others to find themselves, and she wants to do it through art, through action.
“Instead of looking at the negative and just wondering, look at the positive and take action,” Aguilar said.