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Terminal cancer patient aims for creative legacy

Phillip Jeffrey is always working on something – and terminal cancer hasn’t stopped him. Five years after his initial diagnosis,…

By Chelsea Blazer , in Health , on March 31, 2011 Tags: , , ,

Jeffrey, a UBC student, is pursuing his PhD researching the rhetorics of social games.

Phillip Jeffrey is always working on something – and terminal cancer hasn’t stopped him. Five years after his initial diagnosis, he is busy starting the Creators with Cancer website.

In three months, Jeffrey raised almost half of his $5,000 goal to fund a three-month trip to interview artists living with cancer in Canada and showcase their creativity.

The project aims to show a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean life is over.

“People with cancer are not laying in bed all the time, people with cancer are not just unhappy all the time,” he said. “That they also can be like everyone else: just doing creative things.”

He wants this to be bigger than the website. The dream is a large-scale project, including a film documentary and coffee-table photo book.  His ambition is to keep the initiative  growing.

But, he knows his life will end soon – just not when. His cancer can get worse any day.

“If, for example, I take a turn for the worse, I would have to think about how this project could continue. I want it to continue,” he said. “I don’t want it to just end with me.”

Jeffrey’s battle

Doctors diagnosed Jeffrey, a University of British Columbia PhD student, with cancer more than five years ago.

The student constantly felt tired in the fall of 2005. He finally visited a health clinic where the doctors asked for a series of tests, including bloodwork and chest x-rays. The procedures culminated in a scary diagnosis: mulitple myeloma.

“I was maybe a little freaked out,” said Jeffrey. “But it was more of, ‘Okay, so this is what’s wrong with me,’ as opposed to, ‘Oh no, I’m going to die tomorrow.’”

Multiple myeloma is a rare blood cancer. It makes up one per cent of cancers, according to a research foundation.

His cancer is unpredictable. Today his condition is stable, but will eventually worsen leading to death.

“[Remission] maybe was possible in the beginning,” he said. “But that’s not possible anymore.”

Leaving a legacy

The diagnosis didn’t stop Jeffrey from pursing his art. He continued blogging and exploring photography. This lifestyle planted the idea for Creators with Cancer. He wants to use digital storytelling to feature creative people living with cancer and their art.

Cancer lengthened Jeffrey's education by weakening his concentration.

“I decided I wanted to make a contribution. Do something different,” he said,  “and – beyond my PhD – find something where I can have a legacy.”

Creators with Cancer launched on the fundraising platform IndieGoGo in January 2011. Jeffrey’s committed to raising $5,000 before April ends. He takes a photo of Vancouver for $48 donors and cooks dinner for $368 donors.

He will use the funds to travel across North America this summer to interview the artists. They will come from four areas: music, design, technology or art.

Read: Derek Miller’s story: an artist living with cancer

Jeffrey’s photography sparked the idea for Creators with Cancer, but it also helped him cope with his illness.

“Having a camera opened up worlds that ordinarily might not exist. I know my life is a lot different because I have a camera than if I didn’t,” he said.

Art can help sick patients feel better psychologically.

Those with cancer who draw, paint or do pottery reported less pain and depression after art sessions, according to a 2006 study at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

In her 19 years as a social worker with the B.C. Cancer Society, Sarah Sample has seen how writing, art and music helps cancer patients.

“There are as many creative ways to deal with cancer as there are patients,”  she said. “A lot of people have really come to connect with themselves and their own work through living their life through those wonderful, creative ways.”

Art provides a constant from Jeffrey’s life before cancer. He conquers boredom and remains positive through creative thinking.

“I am not letting cancer effect who I am. I am still the same Phillip Jeffrey, but oh by the way maybe I’m a little tired today,” he said. “But it’s not dramatically changing my everyday world.”

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