Brushes with Cancer fulfills Aliyah Sadaf’s clinical and artistic sides

Blog images courtesy of Eileen O’Hair.

Brushes with Cancer
Artist Dr. Aliyah Sadaf often exists in two worlds as a physician and artist. As a creative person, though, she finds unique opportunities to merge the two.

“I work at a teaching hospital, so I tell my students and trainees that medicine is a form of art,” Aliyah said. “It comes down to how one approaches a decision.” 

She also saw how the arts transformed a patient’s experience when the hospital hired a music therapist.  

“Our patient was thrilled,” she said. “Sometimes, using other forms of therapy and expression is more effective than medication.”

In addition to her work at the hospital, Aliyah has past experience as an interior designer and is currently an artist. Her acrylic pieces combine unique mediums, including concrete, leather and recycled paper. The result is artwork that has a textured and sculptural feeling. 

“It has never felt like work, which makes it easier,” Aliyah said. “I can put the kids to bed and work in my studio and it does not feel stressful.

Aliyah did not consider herself an artist at first, though. 

“It’s a little bit of a journey, and imposter syndrome creeps into everything we do,” she said. 

As she got deeper into her work, her children helped solidify Aliyah’s artistic identity. 

“My children know me as an artist,” she said. “So, now when I talk to people I say ‘I am this AND I am this.’”


Understanding a patient’s perspective


Aliyah’s Brushes with Cancer
Inspiration Patryce Sheppard helped her understand patient care more deeply. In the medical world, physicians like Alyiah and her peers must slightly dissociate to balance making tough decisions and offering patients empathy and care.

How each physician handles their profession’s challenges, though, varies.

“As a patient, one has a lot of different experiences with physicians and not all of them are necessarily positive,” Aliyah said. “I think some can feel cold and scary.”

Through connecting with Patryce, Aliyah stepped out of her physician role, gaining a perspective that only enhanced her patient care. Specifically, Patryce spoke to Aliyah about her medical team and how she felt working with each member.

“It helped inform my practice and how I think when I talk to a patient suffering from cancer or a family member,” she said. “It’s a great reminder of what to keep in mind and to help build on that empathy one should always have.”

Through Paytrice, Aliyah learned how to best recognize her patients’ emotions while protecting her own, creating an environment where all parties’ emotions are considered. It’s a unique gift for someone who has been patient-minded from the beginning.

“When I had those interactions with patients in my third year of med school it felt right,” Aliyah said. “I really enjoyed talking to patients.”

Specifically, she works with patients who are at the end of their lives, many of them cancer patients. By connecting with Patryce as a friend and Inspiration—instead of a patient—she could remove the professional barriers and get deeper, learning the intimate feelings many of her patients carry.

“My role gives me perspective and allows me to find fulfillment in walking them through something that is very scary and difficult,” she said.


Visually mapping Patryce’s life experiences


To understand Patryce better, Aliyah read her book,
Doing it Differently: An Empowering Approach to Thriving Through Breast Cancer.

Written as a resource for those going through cancer diagnosis and treatment, Patryce provides a warm voice amid new terminology and matter-of-fact communication within the medical system. 

“She wanted to write something that felt like a friend was talking to you,” Aliyah said. “It’s so beautifully written and relatable, it’s amazing. What she did was so admirable.”

It was Patryce’s book that gave Aliyah inspiration for her Brushes with Cancer piece. While reading, Aliyah noticed a unique style decision. 

“I noticed she had dots on the pages and it made a beautiful art form—a diagram,” Aliyah said. “I asked her ‘What’s going on with the dots? They’re really pretty.’”

Interestingly, Patryce used the dots to represent the various significant aspects of her cancer journey. Her visualization had resulted in something beautifully organic and meaningful. To Aliyah, the dots represented Patryce’s combined experiences, with the irregularity creating space for each dot. 

“It was an a-ha moment for me,” she said. “I felt the dots needed to be translated into an artwork. I wanted something that had a story behind it that Patryce would feel comfortable about.”

The result is “Dancing in the Rain,” a tribute to Patryce’s life, inspired by her book and its pages. The piece compiles many materials—concrete, acrylic, oil pastel and hand-painted wire—to bring Patryce’s dots, her journey, to life. 

“The textured background reflects imperfections of life that surround this journey and how the raised ‘dots’ rise above those imperfections to serve as a guide, intricately leading one down a path less traveled,” Aliyah said in her artist statement. 

The pair met in person at the Brushes with Cancer reception at Writers Theater, shortly after Aliyah revealed the artwork. 

“We did share it virtually and Patryce said she loved it,” Aliyah said. “She was excited— it was a beautiful experience.”