Family House Diaries: Cancer Diagnosis Inspires the Artist Within

Ann Hartline, a former cardiac nurse from Asheville, N.C., credits her breast cancer diagnosis with inspiring her to take up painting farm animals and landscapes, playing the ukulele and learning to fly fish.

Family House Diaries: Cancer Diagnosis Inspires the Artist Within click to enlarge Ann Hartline

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Were it not for her breast cancer diagnosis, Ann Hartline wouldn’t have taken up painting or learned to play the ukulele or fly-fish.

“I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer on June 5, 2007,” said Hartline, 45, a former traveling cardiac nurse, who grew up in Charlotte and now calls Asheville home.  “I derailed and went to a wellness retreat to regroup.

“The whole focus was about getting myself back, about setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ to things and maybe ‘yes’ to more things,”  Hartline recalled.  “We set up chairs by the creek, took out watercolors and painted.  That took my mind to a completely different place.”

Since then, despite the cancer’s spread to Hartline’s brain, liver and lungs, she’s opened a studio in Asheville, and Annie’s Art has attracted a following for her original art, prints and note cards that feature farm animals and landscapes.  

Hartline is no stranger to cancer. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32 and died at age 36 when Ann was 10 years old.  Seven years ago Ann’s younger sister, Katie, was diagnosed at age 33.

Genetic testing revealed that Ann, Katie and their older sister, Kelli, now 48, carry the BRCA-1 mutation, which indicates an increased risk of breast cancer.  Kelli remains cancer-free.  

Ann was treated at community-based cancer centers and leading comprehensive cancer centers in North Carolina and in Texas for her breast cancer and its spread to her lungs, liver and brain. The treatments worked at arresting the tumors’ growth until December 2010 when new tumors were discovered in her brain.

The chance to participate in a clinical trial designed expressly for triple-negative breast cancer patients with brain metastases drew Ann to UNC Hospitals.  She met the eligibility criteria for the national study that is expected to enroll 40 women.  

The principal co-investigators of the study are Carey Anders, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology/oncology, and Lisa A. Carey, MD, medical director of the UNC Breast Center and co-leader of the Breast Research Program at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, which has the longest continuously running Specialized Program in Research Excellence in Breast Cancer in the country.   

“There is clinical evidence that triple-negative breast cancer is spreading to the brain in higher proportions than once thought,” said Dr. Anders, Ann’s medical oncologist.  “With triple-negative we know there are no estrogen, progesterone or HER-2 receptors to target with treatment.  We also know that those triple-negative cells are sensitive to chemotherapy, but smart enough to repair themselves and keep growing.”

The clinical trial pairs an investigational new drug also being tested in lung and ovarian cancers with an approved drug used in the treatment of brain tumors. “We believe these two drugs work well together in that the one damages the tumor’s DNA and the other blocks the tumor’s machinery to repair the damage,” Dr. Anders said.

Ann has been on the study since January. She receives treatment on various days over a 12-day period and enjoys an 8-day break before the cycle starts again.  She will continue on the study as long as she is benefitting.

“Ann is tolerating the treatment very well,” Dr. Anders said.  “She takes her disease by the horns, and her courage is so admirable. She’s multi-talented and with such a sweet sense of humor.  I can’t think of a time when she hasn’t had me or the nurses laughing.  She’s such a delight to take care of in the clinic.”

While in Chapel Hill, Ann stays at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals.  Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.  Sometimes Ann paints on the porch.

“I want to be well, and Family House makes me feel well,” Ann said.  “The company of other people at Family House is good.  If I need to go to the front desk and cry, that’s OK.  I couldn’t do that in a hotel.  It blows me away that so many different groups of local people volunteer to come and cook. There are trails and the labyrinth for peaceful walks.  Sitting by the fireplace with a book feels like home.”

Back in Asheville, Ann finds solace painting in her studio in the company of painter Bea Seiburg, a fellow breast cancer survivor.

She also draws comfort from a support group who call themselves the Young and Breastless.  “The name says it all,” Ann said, laughing. “I love those girls, and we get together about once a month.  There’s nothing we can’t tell or ask each other.

“I always took my hair and breasts for granted, but not anymore,” she said.  “I feel more confident in myself even without hair.  I know I have a choice to be miserable or get off my butt and do the things I love while I feel good.”

Ann doesn’t have a bucket list, but a happy list she’s working through. “I really don’t have the desire to ride a motorcycle anymore, but just the experience of the motorcycle-riding class could be empowering.  Like Casting for Recovery where I learned to fly-fish.”

And the ukulele?  “It’s pink, and I sometimes sit on the porch and practice, but I’m not sure anybody appreciates that but me,” she said, laughing.

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