Healing Through Art

“Acceptance of the Journey,” an acrylic on canvas by Des Moines artist Jimmy Navarro, will hang in the new MercyOne Richard Deming Cancer Center. The landscape’s elements, including a distant mountain, valley, river, clouds and sunshine, symbolize the different points along a patient’s journey.

Writer: Jody Gifford

For patients of the new MercyOne Richard Deming Cancer Center, music and art will be much more than a pleasant diversion; they’ll be tools for healing.

The $16 million center, located on the MercyOne campus in downtown Des Moines, not only will offer cutting-edge technology and traditional medical regimens, but also multidisciplinary, integrative treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, yoga, meditation, prayer, animal-assisted therapy, diet and exercise, and music and art therapy.

As part of that approach, MercyOne Des Moines Foundation commissioned a music composition for a string quartet and a painting. Each will premiere the day the center opens to the public. As of press time, that date had not been set but was expected to be sometime this winter.

The painting, titled “Acceptance of the Journey,” was created by Des Moines artist James “Jimmy” Navarro and will hang in the lobby. An acrylic on canvas, the work features a contemporary landscape that includes a distant mountain, a valley punctuated by a flowing river, storm clouds and sunshine to symbolize the different points in a patient’s journey.

Navarro says the painting was inspired by his girlfriend’s aunt, Nancy Jensen, who died in 2020 after a 20-year battle with breast cancer. Jensen, he says, was like family to him and watching her live with cancer was humbling.

“On the outside, she was smiling and doing all these ‘normal’ things, but inside, she was in severe pain,” he says. “I remember talking about chemotherapy and she said it helped her feel good. It gave her more time with her family, but cancer was part of her life and she had accepted that.”

Navarro says the painting speaks to anyone living with cancer, whether they were just diagnosed or are approaching the end of their life: “It’s about accepting where they might be on their own journey.”

The music composition, titled “A Musical Blessing,” also is meant to symbolize a journey, taking listeners through the highs and lows of a diagnosis, says California-based composer Nolan Gasser, a Pandora musicologist and founder of the Music Genome Project.

“There’s kind of a story to the music that’s like a movie,” says Gasser, who composed a similar piece for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The music’s role is “to help participate in healing … because if you’re dealing with cancer, you’re dealing with a lot of rough days. Even if you’re optimistic, and even if you’re getting good reports from the doctor, there’s a lot of suffering. You have to go through that.

“So the piece doesn’t shy away from [that],” he adds. “There’s some dissonance, but there’s also hope and courage and then, ultimately, there is a sense of joy that this can be overcome. And you can always tell when that apotheosis is coming. Everything is leading to it, and it’s the moment when you get chills—and it doesn’t mean that it’s the loudest section, it can often be quiet—but it’s where all roads lead.”

Dr. Richard Deming. Photographer: Duane Tinkey.

Gasser’s piece will be adapted for use during music therapy sessions for patients. The music and art, along with all the other therapies, are intended to help treat the whole person and not just the disease, says Dr. Richard Deming, who will be the center’s medical director. It’s the kind of compassionate care he’s been advocating and practicing for more than 30 years.

“What started off as a career in cancer care has really morphed into a ministry of healing,” says Deming, also the founder of the nonprofit organization Above and Beyond Cancer.

“A cancer center is so much more than killing cancer cells,” he says. “Yes, the technology and expertise to kill cancer cells is part of what we do, but it is so much more. It’s taking care of the whole person. It’s not just a doctor taking care of a patient. It’s a human being taking care of another human being, and that is so important.”

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