Basha Brownstein Celebrates 20 Years at Cancer Lifeline

Irrepressible and elfin with a devilish laugh, Barbara “Basha” Brownstein celebrates 20 years with Cancer Lifeline this year. Easily recognizable in her colorful clothing and always accompanied by her faithful chihauhua Roo, Basha (and Roo) sat down with us recently to reminisce about the Healing Arts Program for Creative Expression that Cancer Lifeline created.

I first learned about Cancer Lifeline when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. I called the Lifeline and actually spoke with Barbara Frederick (CL’s longtime executive director). Then I took Awareness through Movement class that CL was presenting at Seattle Center Community College. The class was designed by Judy Ellis, a physical therapist, and Lois Rathvon, the former chair of Cornish College of the Arts’ dance department. After that first encounter, I knew that I really wanted to do something that combined cancer and creative expression.

I believe that creativity is a birthright. Life often obscures people’s creativity and they bury it. They get too busy working, raising families, making ends meet. But cancer is one thing that makes people crash against a wall and forces them to ask themselves what’s really important.

In 1998 I started working with Cancer Lifeline as a consultant for ten hours a week, working with Ellen Zahlis to convene a series of focus groups. From this work, the Guiding Group quickly emerged, meeting monthly to develop the Healing Arts for Creative Expression Program. It was clear that we needed to create opportunities to explore creativity without judgment so people living with cancer could get some distance from the disease and yet explore all the topsy- turviness that arises from a cancer diagnosis. Lots of talented people just seemed to appear – to both run programs and to take them. At first we started with open studio meeting three times a week. But things escalated rapidly. And soon we expanded beyond the Dorothy O’Brien Center to Northwest Hospital.

One memorable class was called Process Painting. We set up 12 huge boards 6’ x 4’ in the multi-purpose room and covered them with paper and had pots of tempura paint all over the room. Participants started painting in silence and when they felt that they were finished, the instructor, who was an artist and psychotherapist, Walter McGerry, and the participants would process the painting individually. The work was only meant for the painter. The class ran for four weeks and the progression of paintings seemed to unlock the non-linear side of the brain, helping participants discover new things that were right for them. Very powerful stuff!

Another program that we started is the Writing in the Moment group. At first I was the facilitator but then some of the participants took turns leading the group and the opportunity to be of service was tremendously empowering for them. I am particularly proud of the fact that this group is still meeting regularly today, 20 years later.

To quote Goethe, “the way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” Cancer Lifeline is the absolute embodiment of this belief. We meet people where they are and we create an atmosphere for people to discover who they are.