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The art of cancer recovery

On the left, a painting with a gray background and green leaves. On the right, a photo of the green leaves on the pavement that inspired the painting.
Rohlfing’s paintings are inspired by fallen leaves and petals on her neighborhood walks.

Ginger Mimmo Rohlfing was staring down breast cancer. 

To shift her attention away from the frightening diagnosis and the overwhelming thought of upcoming appointments, Rohlfing, a mother of five and local teaching artist, slipped on her sneakers and took long walks around her neighborhood in Wyndmoor, focusing on the world around her. 

As she strolled, she observed an array of leaves and pink petals on the sidewalk. What was once part of the magnolia tree near her home was now scattered onto the pavement. 

Much like this fallen foliage, Rohlfing too felt broken apart and scattered, worried about her cancer journey. When she returned home, she picked up her paintbrushes and depicted these dispersed leaf and petal patterns on canvas, preserving these fallen pieces and turning them into something whole. 

Putting the pieces back together 

Ginger Mimmo Rohlfing in a surgical gown and scrub cap in a patient room.
Rohlfing began treatment for cancer at Penn Medicine in 2022.

After a diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer in 2022, Rohlfing began chemotherapy at Penn Medicine and several months later underwent a double mastectomy.  

Rohlfing painted a variety of styles of fallen foliage, capturing the fragmented organic shapes, amid her cancer treatment. “Cancer isn’t just physically grueling. It mentally and emotionally tears you down,” she said. The paintings “were a metaphor for putting pieces of myself back together.” 

As her treatments continued, Rohlfing’s care team—Tracy d’Entremont, MD, director of Oncology Services, Abramson Cancer Center at Valley Forge; Julia C. Tchou, MD, PhD, a professor of Clinical Surgery and director of Breast Surgery Research and the Breast Surgery Fellowship; and Joshua Fosnot, MD, a plastic surgeon—encouraged her to consider all options, suggesting breast reconstruction surgery. They walked her through the types of reconstruction available and the advantages of each procedure to help Rohlfing decide the next step in her journey. Soon, her anxiety turned to hope. 

“Their level of confidence, knowledge, and compassion made me feel so safe and cared for,” Rohlfing said of her doctors. “It was the first time I thought about what my life could look like after cancer.”

Rohlfing was “blown away” by the results of her breast reconstruction surgery, no longer feeling like she had a “cloud of cancer” following her.

“I’m loquacious, so I tell everyone about my surgery. But if it was a secret, no would know,” she said. “I feel great wearing cute outfits. I can take my kids to the beach and wear a bathing suit. I feel like myself again.”   

‘Art connects us all’  

Ginger Mimmo Rohlfing stands next to a large painting of scattered green leaves and pink flowers, along with two smaller paintings with gray backgrounds and green leaves.
Rohlfing at the 2023 Penn Medicine BRA Day.

Rohlfing’s “Fallen Petals” paintings were featured at Penn Medicine’s 2023 Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day. The annual event brings together breast cancer patients, survivors, and staff to raise awareness for breast reconstruction surgery. This year’s BRA Day theme was an art show.  

“This was the perfect place to show some of my pieces,” she said. “I got to meet so many artists who have all been impacted by the same things.” 

Attendees showcased artwork ranging from sculptures and mosaic designs to textiles, and other mediums, like X-ray-inspired art by Sue Summerton, MD, an associate professor of Clinical Radiology and a breast radiologist at Pennsylvania Hospital’s Breast Imaging Center.

“Art connects us all,” said Summerton. “I often meet patients who are artists, and we’ll discuss each other’s artwork. In my exam room, where we do biopsies, my patients have said having art on the walls was a great distraction for them and took their mind off the procedure.” 

Healing others with art 

A painting with a gray background and yellow, orange, and red leaves.

Now, in remission, Rohlfing continues teaching art classes at a local museum, and donates art supplies to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where one of her daughters had surgery a few years ago. Rohlfing recalls how the first time she saw her daughter smile after her procedure was when she was able to hold a marker and color on paper. She hopes other patients can share the joy her daughter felt, and the calming effects of art that she herself experienced throughout her own treatment.  

“Life has so many beautiful things and much is expressed through art,” Rohlfing said. “All human beings are creative, and when you tap into that, it’s very freeing.”

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