Sarah Chatham: Artist for Life

Sarah Chatham is a William Woods University junior, a studio art major…and a cancer survivor. Chatham returned to school this fall after a bout with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She has since shared her experience with her peers by telling her story through her recent art exhibits and an open talk to the campus.

Chatham is from Chatham, Ill., and came to WWU to major in studio art and minor in business. She fell ill last semester, right before spring break, and went home to her own doctor to be tested. That is when the cancer was discovered, although luckily, since it was caught early, it was contained in her chest.

Chatham was understandably upset and scared when she first heard the news, but she only let herself be afraid for a moment.

“I told myself I needed to deal with it and face it head on. I said to myself, ‘I’ll be fine, I can beat it,’” Chatham explained.

That is exactly what she did.

Chatham may have had to fight her battle alone, but she was not without cheerleaders.

“I was surprised at all the support,” Chatham said.

She received e-mails, packages, presents and phone calls from her peers at school, her sisters in Alpha Chi Omega sorority, as well as the faculty and staff. Her classes sent cards, and William Woods worked hard to make sure she was able to get her schoolwork completed on time. She ended the semester with a 3.8 average.

“I was amazed how many people cared about me,” said Chatham.

In addition to the tremendous support she received from her family and friends, Chatham believes it was her positive attitude and her art that helped her to heal so quickly.

“Looking back on it, I feel very proud of myself that I handled it like I did,” said Chatham.

Staying upbeat throughout the whole ordeal, she returned to what she knew and loved—her art. She created a series of self-portraits documenting the different stages of her treatment.

The photo exhibit now hangs in St. John’s Mercy Hospital at the David Pratt Cancer Center in St. Louis, as well as the first floor of the Gladys Woods Kemper Center for the Arts on the WWU campus. She has gotten a lot of encouraging feedback on both.

“I started the picture series because I was in a very cold, sterile environment (hospitals, doctors’ offices, treatment and operating rooms) and I needed to express myself in a different way, a creative way,” said Chatham.

“I chose to document the different stages I was going through so that I had something to show other people who were going through the same situation. I wanted to show everyone that cancer can hurt your body, but it doesn’t have to kill your spirit.”

Chatham also shared her story with others by talking to more than 120 WWU students about her experience.

“I was so excited that so many people came. I’m glad I can be very open about it and that I have the opportunity to share my experience, because everyone has to go through a similar situation at some point, whether it’s with a family member, friend, or even themselves,” she explained.

Chatham says that she has realized a lot about herself through the whole ordeal.

“I’ve learned that the little things in life don’t matter. You need to appreciate things more. People take health for granted,” Chatham said.

Her last scan was clear and her oncologist is optimistic that it will remain that way.

“I have another scan this month to make sure everything is clean,” she said, “and then I think I will be considered ‘in remission.’”

Chatham has many plans for her future, including starting her own photography
business doing senior and family portraits. She loves high fashion photography and is
interested in pursuing that career as well. Mostly importantly, perhaps, she wants to get more involved with the American Cancer Society.

“There is a mentor project that they do with survivors and people going through cancer currently that I would really like to get involved with. I want to take every opportunity I have to talk about my experience,” Chatham said.

“It’s almost like a blessing in a weird way. It made me a better person.”

CUTLINE: Sarah Chatham in one of the self-portraits she made to document the different stages of her treatment.