Cancer patients chronicle journeys through 20 years of Healing Icons


Article by Rachel Ham

Physicians around the globe are researching drugs to fight cancer and beat the disease that’s claimed so many lives. A local artist is using simpler tools like paper and pastels to bring healing, hope and renewal.

Healing Icons

Participants use word association to express feelings of anxiety and joy. (photo by Rachel Ham)

Heidi Darr-Hope held her first art class for cancer patients 20 years ago. As the sole instructor and executive director of Healing Icons, she’s impacted hundreds of survivors one session at time.

“We are all artists, I like to say,” she said.

About 20 participants gather at a meeting room at Lexington Medical Center for the monthly Lunch & Learn. Some are in remission, others come straight from a doctor’s appointment in another area of the hospital. Some have received their frightening diagnosis just days before joining the group.

Healing Icons uses creativity to confront fears, reduce stress and form a community of cancer survivors. Darr-Hope teaches participants during those monthly Lunch & Learn sessions to put away their reservations, to not be afraid to make mistakes and to express their feelings through various mediums.

“(Healing Icons classes) got me on a path to doing better,” said Linda DeLeonardis, a breast cancer survivor.

Research has shown patients who attend support groups like Healing Icons have reduced “tension, anxiety and tiredness … (and a) lower … risk of depression,” according to the American Cancer Society.

DeLeonardis said past projects like collages gave her an avenue to share her story with others. Many of her finished works now hang in her home.

“They were that important to me,” she said.

“It’s beautiful what comes out of the group,” Darr-Hope said.

Darr-Hope said the classes aren’t meant to be a distraction from treatment but instead a place to identify and address things that are causing anxiety. When instructing on mandalas, a “sacred circle” used to unearth wisdom, she asked last week’s group to write down words they “see.” Words like “hope,” “peace,” “road” and even “stress” were revealed in the curves and colors of the mandalas they drew.

“Don’t judge the words that come,” Darr-Hope said. “Let go and see what comes … There’s no right or wrong way to do this.”

Darr-Hope also challenged artists to let happy memories surface as they created new shapes inside their mandalas.

Past participants have published compilations of their “icons,” or self-portraits of their survival stories using numerous materials. They say Healing Icons gave them a respite from thinking about their illness that but classes are far from a “no cancer talk” zone. People are encouraged to share their fears and breakthroughs by talking with fellow classmates about what they’ve created.

DeLeonardis said the open-armed community helped her process not only her own diagnosis but also the death of her husband, who also had cancer.

Healing Icons

Heidi Darr-Hope gives patients the tools and techniques to get started on a journey of expression. (photo by Rachel Ham)

“It’s easy to talk to people with the same experience,” she said. “It’s good to see people open up.”

Caregivers often are sitting around the table with their paintbrushes and pencils, too. Evelyn Anderson first came with her daughter Jill, who was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“It helped both of us and was a real inspiration,” Anderson said.

Leaning on the Healing Icons community and having a creative outlet at her fingertips allowed Anderson to work through her grief when Jill passed away.

“It gets to be like a real family,” she said.

Darr-Hope said she thinks her brother’s death at a young age from brain cancer propelled her towards the arts and to one day found a nonprofit to help others through art. She has been recognized for her work with Healing Icons with the 2011 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award from South Carolina Arts Commission and the 2011 Twin (Tribute to Women in Industry) Award in Health and Wellness from the Palmetto Center for Women.

Joining Darr-Hope in keeping Healing Icons’ mission going is a board of directors and volunteer ambassadors. Darr-Hope asks those who’ve been through the process and are several years into remission to serve as ambassadors and be the welcoming committee for visitors.

“It’s good to have them around for the newly diagnosed … They provide a comforting presence,” she said.

Healing Icons is developing an e-course for cancer patients who aren’t able to come in person. The e-course will allow them to work through projects with family and friends.

A series of quarterly retreats is another new addition to Healing Icons. Darr-Hope has organized a spring, summer, autumn and winter retreat lasting from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each Saturday. All supplies are provided, but registration is required.

Healing Icons is supported by the Lexington Medical Center Foundation and the Center for Colon Cancer Research at USC but relies heavily on private donors. The nonprofit is one of the 252 organizations participating in 2015 Midlands Gives on May 5.

More information about Healing Icons is available here. The next Lunch & Learn is scheduled for noon May 6.