Emotional Tally

A USF alumnus documents her battle with cancer through her artistic expression in a collection now on display at Moffitt Cancer Center.


By Brandi Hollis

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 17, 2012) – Just a month after starting her graduate degree program at the University of South Florida, artist Megan Hildebrandt was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 25.


Instead of returning to her home in Walled Lake, MI, she decided to stay in Tampa and remain at USF and continue her studies in the Fine Arts.


“For me, [going home] was not an option,” said Hildebrandt. “I felt the only way I was really going to get through the chemo was to stay in school and do art, and just have a part of life not affected by cancer.”


Moffitt Cancer Center offered to treat her for free since she didn’t have insurance, so Megan walked from chemo at Moffitt to class and coped with cancer the only way she knew how – by drawing. But even though she didn’t want cancer to affect her art, her work started showing the struggle she was going through.


Earlier this month, Hildebrandt spoke at Moffitt about her illness and her art show, “Counting Radiation,” which will be on display at Moffitt until February. The collection is part of Moffitt’s Art in Medicine program, which has provided artwork, bedside crafts, and an art studio for patients since 1998.


When she went in remission in April 2011, she began the “Counting Radiation” collection now on display. She completed her graduate studies earlier this year.


“The end of chemo is really when you start dealing with it emotionally,” said Hildebrandt. “That’s when you’re like, ‘oh my god what just happened to me?’ ”


To help her work through her anxiety she began drawing tally marks, in a grid across the page. But after pages of tally marks, according to Hildebrandt, the grid began to morph into a freeform of rolling tally marks, a landscape of her experience and time with cancer.


“It’s tallying the amount of radiation,” said Hildebrandt. “At first I started tallying the amount of radiation I had been exposed to since diagnosis, but now it’s about a lot more than that…it’s also about tallying the time from diagnosis.”


Because Hildebrandt was diagnosed so young, she is an advocate for other young people that are looking at years of chemotherapy and then years of CT scans whose radiation can affect other aspects of their lives.


“I think I see my role as trying to remind [doctors] that there is a person and a patient. The concerns of young adults with cancer are a lot different than, like, a 60-year-old, in terms of reproductive possibilities and other things.”


She is currently working with Moffitt’s Art in Medicine program and the USF Contemporary Art Museum to bring a larger collection of work to the Vincent A. Stabile Research Building and to participate in a symposium on the patient-illness narrative in 2013.


Hildebrandt’s art may be serious. But she possesses a quick wit and a ready laugh. Her presentation at Moffitt included a reading from her “Megan Dialogues” about a trip to a Hooters restaurant and how she imagined the automated voice during her chemo sounding like Snoop Dogg.


Before appearing at the art collection presentation, Hildebrandt attended Moffitt Cancer Center’s “Meet Up For Young Adults with Cancer” to connect with other Moffitt patients.


Erin Conte of Clearwater attended the presentation after the meet up and said she could relate to Hildebrandt’s art: “Each tally mark is emotional.”