The Work of A Survivor

Wilhelmina Grant headshot

By Amanda Moses

Cancer is a cruel, life changing disease. It takes over one’s life and is the cause of many ongoing struggles; however, Wilhelmina Grant has taken a more positive focus on her experience with breast cancer. She believes that breast cancer was the best thing that ever happened to her. Not in the sense that she wanted it, but that she channeled the ongoing physical and mental battle into ways to help others. Grant found that cancer enabled her to meet new and interesting people, visit a variety of places, fight to live life fully and tap into her artistic side. Her voyage inspired her to create assemblage art (using found objects as a visual showcase) and pen a memoir, “A Feeling of Fullness: Insights of a Divinely Guided Journey Beyond Breast Cancer.” Grant’s art and book are a brutally honest portrayal of her cancer diagnoses, treatment, a second breast cancer re-occurrence, remission and so much more.

Her book offers a true discussion on surviving breast cancer both mentally and physically. Grant begins her story with the harrowing tale of her diagnosis. She was sparring in a Marital Arts dojo when she received a hard blow to the chest. The injury hurt more than expected, and her years of training in a dojo taught her to be vigilant, so she went to a clinic and requested a mammogram. But she was told by the clinic doctor that at 37 years old, she was too young for a mammogram and that it was not necessary.

Instead, Grant was given an ultrasound and told that she merely had a cyst on her breast and that it will go away with time. Grant did not agree with that diagnosis and went to her gynecologist requesting a mammogram referral. Her gynecologist concurred with the clinic physician. It was 1994, and cancer was still considered a taboo term entitled “The Big C,” so Grant was determined to make sure she wasn’t blindly ignoring an illness, so she sought a third opinion. Finally, a doctor gave her a referral to a radiology center where she received a thorough examination, including a needle biopsy. The post-surgical pathology report revealed that she had Stage II- an Infiltrate Ductal Carcinoma with positive lymph involvement.

Fish Die by the MouthGrant almost fell through the cracks of the medical system, like many African American women who have a higher breast cancer mortality rate. According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program’s (SEER) Cancer Statistics Review, “in 2013 the breast cancer mortality rate is 39% higher in African-American women than in [Caucasian] women.” The Susan G. Komen Center reports that in the past, “African-American women were less likely than [Caucasian] women to get regular mammograms. Lower screening rates in the past may be one possible reason for the difference in survival rates today.”

Grant was born and raised in Brooklyn, and two of her sisters (and their families) call Spring Creek Towers’ home. In addition, she has been the Creative Center artist-in-residence at Woodhull Hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant since 2011. Her story is one that everyone can learn from. Grant openly describes her experience with ignorant condolence cards (as if her death was imminent), social stereotypes for women who’ve undergone mastectomy, and how art and advocacy became her lifelong passions.

In her memoir, Grant wrote a beautiful sentiment, “Cancer is just a word, not a sentence.” She took her experience and transformed it into an educational and creative journey. She used her art to encourage women to get annual breast exams and openly displayed what cancer does to a person’s body.

Do the Right Thing! Get a Mammogram!credit RCollins

The Spring Creek Sun spoke with Grant about her book and grassroots organization, Survivors Inspiring Sisters Through Arts and Advocacy for Health (SISTAAH).

Spring Creek Sun (SCS): What do you hope people gain from reading your book?

Wilhelmina Grant (WG): I really want people to follow my example and be encouraged to be proactive about their health. First and foremost, if one believes that something is amiss, I hope that they will feel empowered and confident enough to follow through with medical providers until they are satisfied with the outcome. Secondly, I want people to take the time and effort to care for themselves physically and emotionally. To combat illness, I think that it is very important to eat well, exercise, get proper rest and reduce stress. Also, I hope that more adults discover and engage in artmaking as a creative outlet and means of expression.

SCS: Did you find the writing process and memoir aspect of your book to be a therapeutic process like your art?

WG: I have been queried by cancer survivors who are newly diagnosed about “how I managed to survive more than 20 years.” I found that as I recalled events that occurred during the early part of my diagnosis, I realized how far I had come since the beginning of my journey. The actual writing of the book helped to provide me with a springboard to an additional artistic medium — writing. I want to publish additional books in the future.

SCS: What projects are you and your organization (SISTAAH) working on now?

WG: Beginning in late spring, SISTAAH, a 2017 recipient of a Citizens Committee for New York City Neighborhood Grant, will be conducting a community art project with cancer survivors. Also, SISTAAH is participating in Open Studios on June 10 as part of the annual Uptown Arts Stroll (of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance). Open Studios is an opportunity for visitors to drop in and observe and converse artists in their creative space.

SCS: What are some future goals you have for yourself?

WG: Personally and artistically I plan to continue growing, learning and experiencing new things. It is important to facilitate art-making opportunities for cancer survivors, adults, and the aging population to emerge as artists. I plan to continue building, creating, and promoting creativity to help ensure that art remains significant in our culture.

SCS: Why do you think you have this drive to inform and encourage others?

WG: It is a privilege and a duty. I feel fortunate that I overcame a potentially life-threatening situation with the ability and desire to inspire others. I have always been a proponent of advocacy for myself and my community. I think it is more important than ever for people to arm themselves with information, and also to band together with like-minded individuals and groups to help lift one another up.

SCS: Does your organization provide community outreach services?

WG: SISTAAH collaborates with local and national groups to help disseminate resource information in English and Spanish at each SISTAAH art event.

To learn more about Wilhelmina Grant visit her website 

Photos and art work courtesy of Wilhelmina Grant

Grant_1_What a Hoot