Published on June 27, 2022

Free From Fear

Jim Lawrence

For nearly all his life, Jim Lawrence’s body took him everywhere he wanted to go. He played softball. He backpacked the Sierras.

“I didn’t really think about my body,” he said. “It worked, and I didn’t pay it much notice.” But 10 years ago, his body began to demand attention. Lawrence developed progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease that quickly limited his ability to walk. A special education teacher, Lawrence had to end his career on disability. But he adapted. When MS claimed his legs, Lawrence picked up paddles.

“I can still be powerful and graceful in a kayak. That helps me deal with the fact I can’t walk much,” he said. “It’s a good escape.” But his boat would be rocked. He lost everything in the Camp Fire.

“We didn’t just lose our homes. We lost our whole town and friends,” he said. “Everybody scattered. We lived up there for 45 years.”

Like thousands of other Camp Fire survivors, Lawrence landed in Chico. It was while he was putting the pieces of his life back together that he received his cancer diagnosis. The disease is in his kidneys, and it’s inoperable. But he didn’t want to spend his days being mad or scared.

“I can still be powerful and graceful in a kayak. That helps me deal with the fact I can’t walk much.”

Finding Peace

Lawrence got back in his kayak. He took a camera and began capturing photos of migratory birds. His frequent trips paddling the Thermalito Afterbay helped him find peace. A self-taught painter, Lawrence recreates his photos on canvas. Many are of birds. Some have people. Others are more abstract.

“Much more of my feelings come out when I do abstract,” he said.

With each new obstacle, Lawrence needed to find freedom from fear. Community helps. “Once you get a chronic medical thing going, you become aware of more people with chronic stuff much worse,” he said.

He hopes his art might guide others to the peace that sustains him. Lawrence jumped at the chance to exhibit his work in the Enloe Regional Cancer Center’s Healing Art Gallery.

The gallery’s first show was in 2002 featuring paintings by Claudia Steele, a cancer survivor. For 20 years now the gallery has offered patients and caregivers a welcome diversion. Artists have shared paintings, pen and ink prints, papier-mâché, quilts, sculptures, art glass, and photography. The gallery features four exhibits a year, all by North State artists touched in some way by cancer.

“At this stage of my life, I appreciate the opportunity to share my artwork in this way not only to help me but other people who are struggling,” he said. “I try and convey hope and freedom.”

Lawrence is not without hope. His cancer diagnosis was two and a half years ago. He’s part of a growing group of patients in America for whom cancer is a chronic disease. The best treatment available can stabilize his tumor, but not eliminate it.

“I’m really grateful to Enloe and the whole group down there at the Cancer Center. It’s such a supportive group.”

That precarious position offers a perspective Lawrence says he lacked before. He’s a more grateful person today. He credits his sister-in-law for his renewed focus on gratitude. “If you really are determined, you’ll see the positive things going on,” Lawrence said. “I find myself sitting on the back porch just watching a spider spinning a web and think, ‘My goodness what a cool thing!’”

New treatments will give Lawrence — and countless other patients — more time to ponder the positive things in the world.

“The advancements they’ve made in the last five years are spectacular. It’s nice to be able to realize I can live with this for some years,” he said. “I’m really grateful to Enloe and the whole group down there at the Cancer Center. It’s such a supportive group.”

Lawrence’s work will be on display at the Cancer Center through mid-July. You can also see his paintings online at www.enloe.org/art.

Are you an artist? To submit your work for consideration, please email three to five photos of your works to HealingArtGallery@gmail.com. Include an artist statement about your work and how your life has been touched by cancer.