Using Art to Unleash the Hero Within


How art installations raised awareness and funds for breast cancer screening of uninsured patients.

January 29, 2021

Shawn Mulligan gently touches the edges of her powerful artwork, a simple cape worn during breast cancer screening that tells her personal story of courage and hope. This Arizona mother and nurse turned a devastating diagnosis of breast cancer more than a dozen years ago into an opportunity to live her life with a higher sense of purpose and well-being.  

“Discovering the hero within oneself is an indescribable feeling of empowerment,” she says.  

Shawn is one of several breast cancer survivors whose inspirational art was on display in the  “Superheroes, Capes of Strength and Beauty” art installation at the Ventana Gallery on the Roche Diagnostics campus in Tucson, Arizona. Roche develops and provides cancer diagnostic systems to the global pathology market.

Using a cotton mammography cape as canvas, Shawn and other artists from across the United States created intensely personal and moving art that raises awareness as to the importance of early breast cancer screening and detection. Proceeds from the sale of the donated art provided mammogram screenings to Southern Arizonans who cannot afford them.


We're in this together


“I feel it very deeply in my heart that these capes will encourage women and let them know they are not alone in their breast cancer journey,” says Shawn, an oncology breast nurse navigator who helps guide patients through what can be a medical maze. “This journey can feel very lonely. I was scared, and it’s important to know there are people out there who are thinking about you. We are in this together and I am expressing this through my cape.”

“A Journey of Love & Courage,” written in Shawn’s elegant handwriting, graces the teal-colored cape that shimmers with colorful crystal baubles. Through January 2020, Shawn’s cape, along with 49 others, adorned the walls of the Ventana Gallery, which hosts quarterly exhibitions of local and national artists.

Throughout the exhibit, whimsical butterflies, warrior princesses, a stately saguaro cactus, glorious trees of life, shiny milagros - small religious metal charms - and other cape adornments brought messages of courage, strength, hope and empowerment. Personal stories, penned by artists impacted by breast cancer, were told throughout the exhibition.  

Produced in partnership with the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance, “Superheroes, Capes of Strength and Beauty,” was one of the first public exhibitions tied directly to the company’s mission to improve the lives of all patients afflicted with cancer. 

“For us, this incredible event has been a very meaningful journey,” says Brenda Goldsmith, Executive Director of El Rio Health Center Foundation. The center provides services to a  number of lower-income Tucsonans, serving more than 108,000 children and adults in Tucson. All proceeds raised through the sale of the donated artwork benefit El Rio’s mammography fund for uninsured patients, and some capes are displayed in El Rio radiology department clinics.

With great care and love, Brenda embellished an olive green cape with a shimmering purple and silver angel, in memory of a dear friend and El Rio leader who battled breast cancer before passing away in 2016. Pink and blue dots on the cape serve as a reminder that women and men alike can get - and survive - breast cancer.

“Having these amazing art pieces and stories and journeys that go with them is a true gift,” Brenda says.

Creative inspiration


Roche joined forces with El Rio Health in 2019 to partner in providing breast and cervical cancer screening services to neighbors living below the federal poverty level. Darlene Kryza, who oversees philanthropy and community relations for Roche Diagnostics, worked with El Rio Health to bring the “Superheroes, Capes of Strength and Beauty” concept to life.

“Ask any woman who has had a mammogram, and she will likely tell you that the gowns worn during this sensitive testing are less than uplifting. That was part of the creative inspiration behind the exhibition,” Darlene says.

“I remember my mother, a 25-year breast cancer survivor, sharing how demeaning it was for her to get into those oversized, faded mammogram gowns each time, and how they made her feel less than human,” recalls Darlene, whose mom’s glorious display of butterflies on a butter-colored cape is included in the exhibition. El Rio Center uses much more comfortable mammography capes that could truly be dual-purposed as superhero capes. These happier, more dignified garments provided the inspiration for the show.

In addition to breast cancer survivors and other artists, colleagues at the Tucson site worked in groups to embellish capes with local artists.

“Our employees care about their communities and they want to give back,” Darlene says. “The more we can offer opportunities for employees to give of their time, especially in partnership with an organization like El Rio Health that provides preventative and diagnostic services for patients who can’t otherwise afford them, the better.”

Jill German, seated in Tucson as Head of Pathology Lab Customer Segment, says joining forces with cancer survivors and organizations like El Rio Health keeps the company mission in sharp focus.

“Whether down the street or across the world, hearing the personal stories of the challenges and victories of cancer patients fuels our passion to create the best possible diagnostic tests,”  Jill says. ”Seeing this gorgeous art and hearing these stories is an inspiration.”


New technology brings hope to breast cancer patients


Roche continues to improve breast cancer testing to help determine the right treatment path for each patient.

“Roche has been leading research into breast cancer for decades, pushing the boundaries of science to develop advanced diagnostic tests and precision therapies which have saved lives,” says Dr. Eric Walk, a Chief Medical and Scientific Officer.  “This brings new hope.”

For artist and survivor Shawn Mulligan, hope is a powerful tool in the fight against breast cancer.   

“I would say the greatest joy and accomplishment along this path was letting go of fear-based living,” she says. “I was able to see this as an event that happened in my life. It didn’t become me. And I realized there is a community behind every woman that faces a breast cancer diagnosis, like this community of artists. You may not realize it, but it’s there, and it is powerful.”