Meet Doug and Cancer As Art

Last updated: November 2021

Recently, sat down with Doug Sparling, community advocate and artist, to discuss his prostate cancer journey and how it inspired him to create Cancer As Art. Doug shares his story and some of his favorite pieces from the collection.

Doug's journey with prostate cancer

I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer in October 2017. My initial PSA was 5,306, which is a staggeringly high number. I had to ask my doctor to repeat it to me and then have him verify that he actually said “five thousand, three hundred and six.” It was a real shocker. I had a CT scan a few days later and a biopsy the following week. My Gleason score was a 9 (5+4), and given my PSA level, it wasn’t much of a surprise. I started hormone therapy (ADT) pretty much immediately and chemo about 10 days later. I’m done with the initial round of chemo, but I still get a Lupron shot every three months. My PSA had come down to 22 a few months ago, but as of my last checkup it’s gone back up slightly to 27. So for now, I see my oncologist and get my PSA checked every six weeks.

What inspired Cancer As Art?

It happened rather serendipitously, really. One day I came up with the catch phrase “when life gives you cancer, make art” and that was it. I’ve always had a creative bent and used art as a therapeutic tool for as long as I can remember. Expressing myself through art or music has always come naturally. Having a diagnosis of incurable cancer was really a game changer, though. I somehow wanted to incorporate cancer into my work. So what I came up with was using public domain cancer images (thank you NCI!) and manipulating them into something completely different. I can get lost in the process for hours if I let myself. It’s become a way to really ground myself and relax. But I also use it as a metaphor, turning something so terrible and ugly into something beautiful.

I’m a software engineer by trade, and I’ve used software to create art (music and images) for about as long as I’ve been around a computer. While I do play real musical instruments, I’ve never had the knack for proper drawing or painting. I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life. So I was drawn to photography and then later generative art and abstract photography. While I’ve done music most of my life, I didn’t start photography until about 10 years ago, and I got into the software side of it shortly thereafter. I do most of my creative work on an iPhone or an iPad these days.

Picking the subject matter

One thing I’ve learned from support groups is that no matter what type of cancer someone has, we’re all going through the same thing together. Prostate cancer is obviously very personal to me, but a majority of my “cancer friends” are women with breast cancer, so I’m very drawn to that as well.

"Lipogenesis in Prostate Cancer"

Image 1
I do various manipulations to a source image and what I do depends on the image itself as well as what I’m feeling at the time I’m working on it. This one is titled “Lipogenesis in Prostate Cancer.” This image is part of my “woodblock” series. The colors and strokes remind me of lithograph woodblock prints I did as a kid in art class.

"Focal Adhesions in Breast Cancer"

Image 2
This one is called “Focal Adhesions in Breast Cancer” from my “kaleidoscope” series. I love the symmetrical patterns you see when looking through a kaleidoscope. I create a lot of these simply because I find the patterns whimsical and the symmetry comforting.

"HPV-16 E5 Oncoprotein"

Image 3
This image is titled “HPV-16 E5 Oncoprotein.” I sometimes want to stay closer to a cell-like image. But I like to add the look of neural pathways even though these cells have nothing to do with the nervous system or the brain.

What does it mean to be an advocate?

It means everything to me. I took solace in Victor Fankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and really latched onto a quote from Nietzsche that was introduced early in the book.

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

I don’t often use the word “survivor,” but I do relate to it in this context. I find meaning with advocacy. For as long as I am allowed to remain on this earth, I will use what I’ve learned (and am still learning) from my suffering to help others.

Editorial Note:
Image sources are public domain. All manipulations credited to Doug Sparling. You can see more of Doug's work in his Cancer As Art collection on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on September 19, 2021, Doug Sparling passed away. Doug’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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