ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn - Emily Hedberg, 37, of Carver, Minnesota knew breast cancer would take many things: time, appearance, and identity as a wife and mother of two. She was diagnosed last year, and she never expected that in some ways, the disease would give more than it would take.
At Park Nicollet's Frauenshuh Cancer Center in St. Louis Park, the very medicine that has destroyed her cells, also nurtured a new way to cope.
"I am painting a sunflower," said Hedberg, pointing to a tiny watercolor painting that will soon be part of a handmade bracelet. "This is really meaningful for a lady who needed some hope."
The brighter outlook came for Hedberg when she needed to pass time during the hours of chemotherapy. She is a former art teacher who has long painted watercolor and created jewelry. With the help of her younger sister, Katy Smith, she turned what she loved to do into comfort to other women with cancer.
"It's not a club you want to be a part of, but there is this connection with people I don't even know. And to know that I am helping them is such a rare gift," said Hedberg.
The idea for her bracelets began with Dawn McDougal Miller, the Park Nicollet cancer center's music therapist. McDouglas Miller asks patients to imagine healing images during chemo.
"That is a nest for me. It's about expectations and comfort and home," said Hedberg.
Hedberg wondered if she could paint scenes meaningful to other patients undergoing chemo, but due to patient privacy, had no way to connect with those other women. So in secret, McDougal Miller passed along those images special to other patients, and anonymously, Emily began to paint those scenes.
"There have been butterflies, a canoe, music, a child's smile, and a healing heart," she said. "Even if I am struggling, once I do something, it turns out exactly the way it is supposed to."
All those images are intricately painted and placed into a small tile that is the centerpiece of a charm bracelet.
"Due to confidentiality, I can't know their entire story. I just know they are really strong ladies," said Hedberg, as she paints another bracelet. "Strength is from within, but sometimes we all need reminders."
The anonymous gift brought Carissa Warren, 25, to tears. The Minneapolis woman was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, just before her 25th birthday. The bracelet depicted a joyful moment she left her own breast cancer diagnosis behind.
"It was a midnight kayak ride my sister and I took on Lake Michigan where my parents live, and it was just a great experience, I felt giddy and happy and very alive," said Warren.
In that painting, Carissa found promise she could find nowhere else. She often wears the bracelet, showing that glistening night on the water.
"If I get stressed out or sad or anything, it helps me come back and take a deep breath and be OK. I felt like I had a connection to Emily and I hadn't even met her. I felt like she knew what I was going through. I didn't even know her name or what kind of cancer she had, but I felt like she was a friend," said Warren, who was brought to tears again when she met Hedberg.
"It means a lot to me because during the process you run out of tears," said Hedberg.
The bracelet has not only linked two women, it helped Hedbert visualize her recovery. We met her on her last day of treatment, as the last drip of chemo left her body. But unexpectedly, her treatment it also left something more - a true work of heart.
"I feel breathless. I feel overwhelmed, thankful and blessed," she said. "I hope that one day my little girl Ella will say what's cancer? So, hopefully I won't be making these bracelets my whole life," she said.
Hedberg is now happy to report she is cancer free. She is working on a series of watercolor paintings she hopes to someday showcase at a gallery show. She plans to continue making bracelets for other cancer patients, even though she is out of treatment.
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