My Breast Cancer SoulCollage® Deck

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I spent most of 2007 in treatment of one kind or another; and I spent it crying and broken apart. I spent years trying to understand my experience, to explain it to my friends. And in the end, words were just not adequate.

Cancer is complicated. What it did to me, my identity and my life is complicated. I had lots of choices to make (surgery, chemotherapy, hormone treatment, hysterectomy) and yet none of my options were great. All of my options had major downsides to them. It sucked, but that’s cancer for you.

In 2002 I discovered SoulCollage®. The process has served me well over the years, allowing me to explore my world through imagery. SoulCollage® is what opened me up to mixed media art, a current passion of mine. I had done some SoulCollage® after breast cancer treatment, but it was in 2012 that I decided to create cards about my breast cancer journey.

Here is my Breast Cancer SoulCollage® deck. It does for me what words cannot…it expresses how I felt about my experience. It’s not linear, and it’s not complete, and that’s okay.

I am One who’s world has been torn apart. I am One who is in shock.

I am One who has been carried away against my will.

I am One who walks this path alone. I am scared.

I am One who has stepped into a world of hospitals, doctors and pills. Lots of pills. I feel like I aged 20 years in just 6 months.

I am One who is carved up. Body parts lost, scarred.

I am One who is stalked by Death. I feel the threat of violence and death all around me.


I am One who fights for my life.

I am One who lost my female identity along with my body parts. Who am I without my breasts? Without my uterus and ovaries?


I am One who feels like I am part of a bigger picture. I have found community with other breast cancer survivors. Pink Phoenix teammates are my sisters.

I am One who fights for my sisters in battle.


It’s been 10 years since my diagnosis, and I am still living with the consequences of breast cancer. There are more SoulCollage® cards to be made on this subject. I realize that I need to make cards expressing my gratitude for all of the love and support I have received over the years. I have also lost too many friends to cancer, and that grief is deep. Just last year my youngest daughter found a lump in her breast (it was benign) and that reopened my fear for my daughters’ health. Unfortunately cancer is a “gift” that just keeps on giving!

Thank the heavens for SoulCollage®!





Sadness reflected…

I dreamed about my friend, Meg, last night. This is the second time in 10 days that I have dreamed about her. Meg passed away in 2012 from breast cancer, and she was my buddy on our breast cancer survivor dragonboat team. In both of the dreams, Meg looked good, and was still going to die from breast cancer. Both times I awoke feeling sad, missing her.

I know these dreams are echoing the anxiety I feel about the dragonboat team starting a new season. I love my teammates, and sometimes I am so sad about how many fabulous women we have lost.

Now to be truthful, it has been times like this that I would be heading for the chocolate (and all the other carbs that boost serotonin).

But I can’t do that now.

I have chosen to severely limit sugar, gluten and dairy. Coping through carbs is not a really great long-term strategy, so I have to find another way. Since I am working Life Book 2015, I decided to see if I can work my grief through art.

So here are two pieces (thank you, Joanna Sharpe, for the techniques) I worked on today. Version one is using watercolors, and verson two is digitally colored.


Another Art Bra for the Bratiste’s Traveling Bra Show

After I spent a lot of time and money (I just love craft supplies!) on my first art bra, I thought I was done. I was happy with how my first effort turned out, and one art bra should be enough, right?

Wrong…apparently art bras are like chocolate chip cookies…you can’t stop at just one.

This second bra was inspired by a conversation I had at one of our Pink Phoenix parties. I was chatting with a couple of Pinks who have metastatic breast cancer. Their experience with recurrences led to a discussion of what kind of art bra might reflect their reality. I asked what kind of message they would want to share with the public, and one replied, “Please don’t kill me.” She was being a bit sarcastic, but I was really taken with the simplicity of the message. It’s what every cancer survivor wants…to not be killed by cancer.

So I created a bra of all words. The inside of the bra says “Please don’t kill me,” and “Please don’t kill my friends.” The outside is covered with words of hope…things I told myself to help me get through treatment and to combat the fear. I titled the bra, “When Words Are Not Enough.”

So when you hear a breast cancer speaking about gratitude, love, courage and how they have learned so much from their breast cancer experience (which is, in fact, all true)…just remember, on the inside, they are also saying “please don’t kill me.”



Art Bra Project Finished!

I had such a fun time working on this project! I had to work in stages since drying was involved. This gave me time to contemplate and anticipate the next stage. I even stripped it down at one point and redid it. This was a very scary time as I was working with a glue gun and it was not easily undone and then redone!

So, after the layers of handpainted paper, I added three images of hawks (two on the front and one on the back) shell beads, wooden beads, and feathers. I also created a an amulet to hang down the front. The hawk images were in honor of the three hawks I saw on my way to the doctor’s office to get diagnosed with breast cancer. Seeing hawks is pretty common in Portland, but usually I see the birds circling high up in the sky. These three hawks were at the top of three separate trees (kind of like a Christmas tree angel) along the highway.

Part of the Art Bra guidelines was to submit the bra with a written explanation/story to accompany the bra. I based my bra on a poem I tried to write the year I was in treatment. I spent all year trying to finish this poem, and all I got was phrases and starts, but no cohesive piece. The phrase that I was really attached to was “this is where I wear my female power.” Thanks to the bra project, I was able to finish the poem and submit it with the bra.

So, here is the finished product…


I Wear My Female Power

by Deandra Ellerbe

I once wore my female power,
for all to see,
for all to admire.

Twin moon hung suspended in spandex and cotton;
Their gravitational pull brought many into their orbit.
These globes, full and shining bright,
knew their power,
and loved it.

I then lost my female power,
for all to see,
for all to pity.

The moons destroyed,
ground down,
they were reduced to dust and memory.

A scarred landscape was all that was left.
And I hated it.

I created my female power,
for all to see,
for all to fear.

A  breastplate of deceptive beauty,
Cups molded by steely resolve,
tempered by the fires of war.

I joined my sisters of pain and sacrifice,
battle maidens,
scar clan.

I have their power.
And I love it.

Art BRA Project Begins!

I thought I would post the first of my pictures for my art BRA that I am making for the Bratiste’s Traveling BRA Show. Since I am a mixed media artist, I decided to forgo anything resembling a real bra made out of cloth. My imagery that I am working with is the woman warrior…the amazon, the valkyrie. This was the archetype I used heavily while going through breast cancer treatment. I decided that I wanted to make a bustiere similar to a warrior’s piece of armor. I used plaster coated gauze (like what is used for casts) to wrap my model. My daughter was my model and i had to wrap her in plastic wrap first so that the plaster didn’t stick to her bra or her skin. This process turned out to be very messy!




After I cut the plaster off of my model and patched it back together…I covered it in matte medium and let it dry. Then I began the collaging process. I handpainted tissue paper with gesso, acrylic paint and inks and then let it dry. I tore strips of the paper and using more matte medium, began to cover the bust. I also covered the inside as well. I’m letting this dry before I go on to the next stage.



I’ll put up more photos once I get the next stage done!

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

Inspiration is a funny thing. Where does it come from? How can we access it? I have to admit that I have taken inspiration for granted. My mind was always on alert, taken in data and churning out ideas. I got used to having a deep pool of inspiration from which to drawn from. All I had to do was reach out and there it was.

Then breast cancer, chemo and premature menopause happened…and the pool dried up. My brain didn’t work the same way that it used to. It took me a long time to realize that I still had the information in my brain, but my way of accessing it had to be changed. So I found new ways to work my brain and I thought I was back on track.

This week I got together with a friend to do some art. Normally before I begin collaging, I have some idea of what I want to do. But not this time. And that is when I realized that while I had figured how to work my brain, my easy access to inspiration was still gone. I haven’t done much art since cancer treatment. I had been waiting for inspiration and it just wasn’t there.

I’m sitting there staring at the finished collage and I am pleased. It was then that I discovered that I had been waiting for the old way in which I did creative projects. I was waiting for the thought, the idea and then I would begin work. It’s as if I am no longer sitting next to a deep pool, dipping my hand in for inspiration. I am now in the deep pool. I don’t have to do anything to access it…it’s just there. If I begin to work, something always comes out of it.

I am very relieved that my creativity isn’t gone. This week’s art project helped me to see that I don’t need to wait for inspiration in order to create.


Art Bras Come to Portland

I firmly believe that you can make art out of anything. The homemade paper mache fiasco of ’02 not withstanding,  I have learned to appreciate the messiness and chaos of experimentation. No surprises, this is where my love of collage comes from. I work with handpainted tissue papers, layering them, then using paint and stamps…I never know what I’m going to end up with…and that’s a big part of the thrill.

My newest art venture is the bra (yes, that’s right, I said BRA!) I am making for Portland’s first Bratiste’s Traveling BRA Show. The show is a fundraiser and outreach event for Pink Phoenix, a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team in Portland, Oregon. Art bras have become all the rage…there are a number of exhibits/shows around the country. I’m just happy that this type of event has come to Portland.

I am going to be creating a bustiere out of plaster. My daughter doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be my model for the bustiere. I’m not going to give any more details,but I promise to post pictures of the finished piece.

Would YOU like to make an art bra and support breast cancer awareness? I have uploaded the guidelines to which is a free file storage site online…

And if you make an art bra…send me picture and I’ll post it!

What is a Survivor?

I was at the Komen Breast Cancer Issues Conference a few weeks ago, and I was staffing the Pink Phoenix exhibitor table. Pink Phoenix is a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team of which I am a member. As conference attendees visited our table I would ask, “Are you a survivor?” Since our team is comprised only of breast cancer survivors, I didn’t want to recruit someone who couldn’t actually become a member.

Over the course of the day when I asked this question, several times I got the reply, “Well, I haven’t actually reached the 5 year mark, so I don’t really think of myself as a survivor.” Five years? Really?

I must of missed that in the massive amounts of material on breast cancer that I received from various doctors (and I’m not joking…I even got a 3-ring binder from my oncologist!). I had no idea that 5 years was the industry standard in declaring oneself a survivor.

I considered myself a survivor once I finished treatment…because not only had I survived breast cancer, but I had also survived the treatment. I’m still alive…doesn’t that make me a survivor? I think hitting the five year mark will just make me lucky…the ten year mark, even luckier (you get the idea).

And thanks to Pink Phoenix, I discovered that thriving is the actual goal. I’m glad that I survived…now my eye is on thriving.

Enjoying the View from the Willamette

This is my first blog about breast cancer and I find myself staring at the blank page with trepidation. What to write about? Sometimes it feels like all I do is talk about breast cancer… think about breast cancer. Though, truth be told, I think about it and talk about it less often than I did when I was diagnosed in January of 2007.

After a double mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and then hormone therapy…I’ve spent the past year trying to get my health back into shape. It was at the Komen Race for the Cure Expo that I discovered Pink Phoenix, the first American all breast cancer survivor dragonboating team. Not being much of an athlete, it was my oldest daughter that arm-twisted me into signing up.

Last year was my first season with the Pinks. We practice 10 months out of the year on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. The first few months were brutal as my out-of-shape body dealt with a lot of exercise. I gave myself until the end of race season to see whether I would stick with the team. Practices 3 times a week and weekend races took much of my time and energy.

By the end of the season last year, I realized that I actually liked paddling (yes, it took that long to like it!). The women are great, the paddling is hard, and the view from the river is absolutely spectacular. I get to see the city from a new perspective.

It’s now 2009…and we are back on the river. I’m not nearly as sore as I was when I first started (even with the 2 month break). I find myself actually happy, which is pretty unusual for me when talking about exercise.

I find myself looking forward to practice tomorrow, rain and all.