Reflection: Yaron Butterfield

Our Reflection article series highlights an individual's experiences of the arts as it contributes to health, healing and wellness

Written by Yaron Butterfield

Curated by Zara Contractor

As a third generation Vancouverite, Yaron Butterfield graduated from SFU in 2000 and started at BC Cancer Agency's Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) as a Cancer Genomics Researcher. He is first author on 3 publications in scientific journals and co-author on 48 other refereed articles.  In 2004, he was diagnosed with a serious form of brain cancer called GBM.  Having beaten the odds, he works hard in various initiatives such as initiating the first art therapy program at the BCCA for brain cancer patients. When not at work or volunteering, he particularly enjoys painting, reading and writing

While taking a career in Cancer Research developing and using software to analyze cancer genomes, my other passion is in writing and drawing/painting.  Art in both forms has been important for me since I was young as a way to express my thoughts and feeling. Often it's the only way as words sometimes do not adequately capture my thoughts. I kept a journal by my bedside since I was a kid to document and process my thoughts and dreams.  Sometimes I would sketch my dreams when half awake. for more details on this drawing. After high school, 6 years went by before I was reinspired.  In a distant land, I met a girl. My first love.  Again, I couldn't find the words to express my feelings of our limited but powerful experiences together over the course of a year.  So I drew my thoughts and gave it to her (below). Due to circumstance, we eventually went our separate ways.
But my love for art was rekindled.  A year later, I met another special person. I started to become familiar with the art of acrylic painting as a medium.  We also eventually split which was hard for me.  I expressed her beauty through one of my first portrait paintings.  Doing the art allowed me to meditate on the beauty of what we were, that it was a moment of time in my life, and new adventures were ahead.

Little did I know what that would be. In Feb 2004, I was diagnosed with one of the worst types of brain cancer, glioblastoma.  It is rare for someone with this cancer to survive past 5 years.  

I took advantage of my time off work to continue my art.  Family especially played a part in my healing. I did a portrait of my father, David, along with one of my twin brother, Noam and I when we were 5 years old. Having a twin brother around when dealing with cancer, helped enormously.

 Dreams have also played a key role in my healing. It can be especially hard to put our dream experiences into words.  So this is another avenue I continue to explore--to draw it.  It allows me to take a dream, and make it real. To take a dream and remember it.  This is especially important as an unfortunate side-effect of brain cancer is the negative effects on memory.  By referring to art or my writing, specific memories can be triggered that can open the jar to more connected memories.  In addition, the act of doing art is healing on its own and I believe and import activity for the brain's healing. 

The drawing below includes sketches from a number of dreams I had since I was a kid.  It also include an image from a dream I had shortly after diagnosed with the cancer on the right.  As I stood in a cold damp room with the grim reaper--signifying death--approaching me, I couldn't move.  Then I felt a warm breeze circulating my lower body. When I looked down, it was an angel. Death stopped. The angel rose higher and a powerful  warmth and comfort filled the air around me. Death retreated. The angel was at the level of my head, orchestrating a strong dance of warmth around my whole body especially my head.  Death was gone.  The room brightened into whiteness. 

I woke up.  I knew I would survive.