Sarah Tonkin Gives Herself the Gift to Heal

Sarah Tonkin didn’t realize the impact a simple email could bring. 

A GM Design Center employee, she received an email about the upcoming Brushes with Cancer program the Design Center was bringing in for its staff. It was a call for people to participate as artists and inspirations.

Every Brushes with Cancer program matches up an artist with someone who has been touched by cancer, called an “Inspiration.” 

“When I read it, I was having a normal fine day up until then,” Tonkin said. “Then when I read the call I got a little emotional and thought ‘Maybe I should participate as an inspiration.’”

The innocent email opened up a flood of feelings for Tonkin, who took it as a sign to participate in the opportunity. 

“I read it and started crying, which was not what I expected,” she said. “I was thanking that maybe there’s more I need to work through about my own story.”

Her story

Tonkin’s story begins in 2015, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. At the same time her mother was going through pancreatic cancer. 

“We knew what happens with pancreatic cancer. It wasn’t going to be long for her,” Tonkin said. “This really came out of the blue for me. My mom was already dealing with that and then I had this diagnosis, so it was a lot of confusion in the beginning, trying to figure out how to deal with everything.”

One of her difficult decisions was how to handle her own cancer diagnosis. She ultimately decided it would be best to keep it from her mother. 

“She was not in a position at all to hear that. Mom as her former self would have been there for me, but she was in the process of dying.”

In 2016, Tonkin’s mother passed away. A month later, she underwent a hysterectomy to address her own cancer diagnosis. 

“I didn’t want to waste time treating it, but I was worried she was going to die while I was in the hospital,” Tonkin said. “It was a lot in a short period of time.”

On top of these two heavy experiences, Tonkin’s father was diagnosed with lymphoma in June 2020. 

“Thankfully, they’re going to monitor his blood, and we don’t have to take drastic measures. But I feel like things pile up on top of each other.” 

A path toward healing a family 

That’s why the Brushes with Cancer experience couldn’t have happened at a better time. 

“I think I focused on ‘let’s deal with this’ and put it behind me.’ Well, maybe I needed to process it a little more.”

Tonkin’s artist, Jenna Grabowski, is also an employee at GM Design Center. However, the two had never met prior to their Brushes experience. 

“It was great to meet in this way, but doesn’t feel like meeting a coworker, which is nice,” Tonkin said. “I thought her art was beautiful.”

Grabowski and Tonkin connected through zoom and had an opportunity to have a socially distanced meeting outdoors.

“I find her to be very empathetic and interested,” Tonkin said about Grabowski. “I totally trust her and I’m really looking forward to seeing what she does. She’s talked to me about her ideas and we’ve collaborated in that way. I find it easy to speak with her.”

Because Tonkin’s parents are so important to her story, Grabowski worked to intertwine all three stories within her artwork

“I hope it helps my dad too,” Tonkin said. “He’s pretty stoic, and I think he’s handling it well, but maybe doesn’t show it like me. Hopefully, this will help him to see others going through this.

“We all need something to look forward to,” she said. “Just that it’s happening is wonderful. I think this program has found a way to persevere and make connections between people, even though we are in a virtual world right now. ”