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Artwork Offers Moments of Unexpected Beauty During Cancer Treatment at Lancaster’s New Proton Therapy Center

Artwork displayed at Lancaster General Health's Proton Therapy Center

Moments of beauty can be found in the most unexpected places, even in the midst of a cancer diagnosis.

At Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute, patients and their families find advanced oncology treatments and technology, as well as access to groundbreaking clinical trials. They also find more than 100 pieces of contemporary artwork meant to provide both comfort and strength during a very difficult time in their lives.

Beginning in September, the Cancer Institute will offer proton therapy, a revolutionary form of radiation treatment for patients with certain cancers. The Lancaster center will join Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia as one of a handful of proton therapy centers nationwide, and just two in Pennsylvania.

Artist Daniel Kohn applies colorful tiles on the walls in Lancaster General Health's Proton Therapy Center

Like his fellow Penn Medicine clinicians, Cancer Institute Executive Medical Director Randall A. Oyer, MD, views medicine as both an art and a science. The idea of promoting hope and healing through art is reflected in the design of facilities throughout the health system, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s Pavilion in Philadelphia.

Patients, families, and visitors from the community have admired the Cancer Institute’s art collection since its opening in 2013, Oyer said. Additional features designed to enhance emotional and spiritual well-being include natural lighting, a tranquil healing garden, and a “green wall” of living hydroponic plants.

“We do everything we can to provide a comfortable, welcoming environment for our patients and visitors,” Oyer said. “Our art collection, which was carefully chosen by the LG Health Healing Arts Commission, is an essential element in that environment.”

The new Proton Therapy Center required a significant expansion of the existing building, giving the Cancer Institute something it hasn’t had in years: open wall space. Oyer, a self-described art lover, saw the center’s waiting room as a blank canvas.

When Art Meets Science

Artist Daniel Kohn posing next to his artwork at Lancaster General Health's Proton Therapy Center

The search for the perfect piece of art to welcome patients to the new Proton Therapy Center led Oyer and the Cancer Institute team to Brooklyn, New York, artist Daniel Kohn.

For nearly two decades, Kohn’s work has explored the intersection of art and science. It began when his work caught the eye of an oncologist who founded the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard — a Cambridge, Massachusetts research organization focused on genomic medicine.

“He had seen my work, and he noticed some areas of great detail, as well as a big, broad area of raw canvas,” Kohn recalls. “He said it reminded him of science, where we know a lot about certain very small things, and then there are these huge things about which we know nothing.” From there, Kohn began a long collaboration with the Broad, serving as its first artist in residence and painting in studio space inside a working laboratory.

Kohn’s work with the Broad impressed the Cancer Institute team, which also considered the portfolios of several other talented artists. Along with his appreciation for science and experience working in large spaces, Kohn stood out by taking a very human approach.

“Daniel asked different questions than the others,” Oyer said. “He wanted to come out and see the setting and learn more about what we hoped to accomplish through the art. He also wanted to meet our care team and get a better understanding of our patients’ experience.”

Kohn visited the Cancer Institute last fall, studying the space in person and tracing the experience of a proton therapy patient the best that he could. He talked with physicists about the intricate planning that takes place before treatment begins, with doctors and nurses about what patients experience during treatment, and with a chaplain about life, death, and healing.

Since he has not actually faced a cancer diagnosis, Kohn acknowledges that he cannot fully understand the experience of a proton therapy patient. But he believes that art can play a role, however modest, in helping patients feel less alone during their journey.

“I just want to help create a positive experience in a situation where it’s not very positive,” he said. “We’ve all had difficult experiences, and in those moments it’s helpful to be accompanied.”

Accompaniment Through Art

Colorful tiles displayed on a wall

Most patients will enter the Proton Therapy Center dozens of times over the course of their treatment, which is typically administered five days a week for several weeks. It is especially important to Oyer that the center’s artwork conveys both peace and strength.

The Cancer Institute team originally asked Kohn to create a single large piece for the waiting room. The dramatic, recently installed artwork consists of 180 square tiles arranged in a grid that reaches nearly from the floor to the ceiling. Bathed in abundant natural light, the watercolors on the tiles mirror the green of the adjacent garden space and the blue of the sky. But he didn’t stop there.

Kohn’s conversations with the Cancer Institute team gave him the idea to create several similar, smaller pieces to “accompany” patients through the new proton center’s additional rooms and corridors. These “echo” pieces, with the same colors as the main piece and variations in motif, are meant to help patients feel less alone as they move from the waiting room to the dressing room, and finally, to the treatment room.

In addition to patients and their families, Kohn created his work with the Cancer Institute’s staff in mind. He hopes they find the art visually entertaining and appreciate different elements with each viewing. His goal, in the end, is to make each of their days just a little bit brighter.

“We’d like to welcome people and accompany them, in the small ways we can,” he said. “I hope that as people heal and continue on with their life, that they take some of that with them.”


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