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Transforming Catastrophe

Valerie Roybal is living as an artist with terminal cancer - Pyragraph

Editor’s Note: This post by Valerie Roybal was originally published on November 27, 2013. We are republishing it today as we just learned of Valerie’s passing this morning. Valerie was loved by so many and her kind creative spirit will live on through those who knew her.  

Just over a few months ago I retired, at age 43.

I did not win the lottery, invent the next Post-It note, or marry a millionaire. I have cancer. Stage IV. A type of disease that isn’t considered curable. Whoa.

I’m not necessarily proud of the fact that cancer is my Get Out of Jail Free card, but I am glad for the opportunity. Being able to retire early under “special medical circumstances” is a mixed blessing. I worked at my place of employment for over 18 years; I enjoyed my “day job” as an editor and designer, and I liked being a worker bee. My retiree status is hard-earned, and I am currently mourning that part of myself that I have chosen to give up. It’s no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, productive. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity and time to increase focus on wellness and on art-making, which has been my second career most of my adult life.

Deciding to let go of my former career and re-focus was facing facts. I have cancer, and I intend to live with it for as long and as well as possible.

I want to create the best-case scenario in a situation that is innately horrifying. Interestingly, I realize that given the opportunity, we as humans have this amazing capacity to adjust to ridiculous and terrible circumstances, and be pretty okay, downright content…happy, even. It takes work, and difficult choices and adaptations need to be made, but it is entirely possible, at least for me, to live in harmony with catastrophe. How weird is that?

The other weirdness of living with a serious illness is that I have been able to process and work with the situation creatively. I have been re-imagining, beyond all the technical and medical, the disease at the cellular level.

At its most basic, cancer is the mutation of cells. It is cells gone awry and out of control, and is quite sci-fi and mind-blowing when you really consider it. It is because of the complexity of having cancer that I needed to develop my very own understanding of it. This awareness was also important to the process of making peace with it. Naturally, I Googled, researched, and asked my surgeon and oncologists a lot of questions about the disease, its treatments, and the possibilities of living with it.

But I also needed a different level of understanding, and this is where art-making has come in.

My cancer experience began almost three years ago, long before I quit my day job. Working on understanding it, however, has been an amazing source for creativity, from just about the moment I was diagnosed. For this I am quite grateful. I think a key element of this process is to embrace the disease, and all that accompanies it.

I have chosen to work with it, and realize that even though it is an unpleasant and terrifying experience at times, it is part of my body and the greater energy of life. Why not transform it into something (hopefully) beautiful and amazing, and at the very least, curious? Transfiguration, metamorphosis, and transmutation are ideas that I work with extensively.

There are so many things in our lives that might be considered “incurable” or terrifying, why not work with them? Why not see where it takes you in creating a genuine expression of your experience?

Author’s note: Along with Amy Clinkscales who also has written for Pyragraph, I am helping put together a show looking at art and illness: Adaptations, at SCA Contemporary. It is currently soliciting entries; please see the Call for Entries below.

Call for Entries: Adaptations
June 2014
Curated by Sheri Crider, Patrick Nagatani, Amy Clinkscales and Valerie Roybal

SCA is seeking works for Adaptations: An Exhibition About Survival. The artworks selected for this exhibition will address the adaptations people make when faced with profound disease and illness. Adapting for survival is common in nature. Plants and animals adapt to changes in environment, especially when conditions become extreme. Adaptation requires the ability to make adjustments, change, or evolve to prevent the internal transformation of disease (and the treatments of the disease) from becoming lethal. We are asking artists what adaptations: emotional, physical, spiritual, etc. he or she has had to make when confronted with disease. What does it take on an individual level to survive and live with a disease?

Submissions will be accepted from November 1, 2013 to January 10, 2014. More information and submission requirements can be found at:

About SCA: SCA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is dedicated to facilitating space for experimental, innovative and contemporary art. SCA presents exhibitions by emerging and established, local, national and international artists working with large-scale sculpture, painting, print, drawing, photography, installation, sound and video art.

All images courtesy of Valerie Roybal.

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  1. What a great piece, I am witness to your journey and can say from my heart that your transformation has inspired many of us to look into our own journeys as an opportunity for growth and healing. love you

  2. Thank you for reposting this. This is one of the most powerful pieces I have read by an artist. It is greatly inspirational as is the visual work of Valerie Roybal. It is amazing to reflect on what she did with the time she had left-how she cherished her work and life. I regret I did not meet her but am grateful I have encountered her through her words and pictures and the fabulous show in Albuquerque at the Tortilla Gallery.

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