From advertising to art: A cancer diagnosis prompts a meaningful journey for one Alaskan

A man with glasses paints on a canvas.
Jim Coe, a local Alaskan artist, started painting after he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Coe will showcase his artwork at Providence Cancer Center from Sept. 16 to Sept. 22 in hopes of raising awareness for cancer screening. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Two years ago, Jim Coe’s garage held his home office with some extra space to work on cars. Now, it looks more like an art studio. Ten paintings sit on easels near a rolling cart with a painting pallet.

“I started painting a lot about cancer, and this cancer journey,” said Coe. “And I moved on to painting things about personal things in my life.”

Coe hadn’t painted much before he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2021. He picked it up to maintain his mental health during treatment. He knew he’d be taking time off from work and wanted to fill time with something meaningful. 

“I’ve cried my eyes out painting some of these paintings,” said Coe. “Because they’re very touching to me, very personal, these journeys.”

Coe’s paintings are a mix of detailed imagery and strong graphic elements. One is cheekily called “Bottom Line” and depicts a backside in rumpled jeans. In fine print it says “colorectal screening saves.” A few are scenes that figure large in Coe’s memories — a particular day from life as a ski bum or a road trip in a 1968 Volkswagen bus that continuously broke down. 

A man is sitting on a stool surrounded by paintings.
Jim Coe reflects on his journey with colon cancer through his paintings and how to raise awareness for cancer screening. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Coe has worked in advertising for many years, so he decided early on in his treatment that he wanted to get the word out about the importance of early cancer detection. Now he’s getting ready to show his paintings publicly for the first time. His art will be on display for seven days starting Sept. 16  at Providence Alaska’s Cancer Center in Anchorage. 

“This is maybe the most brave thing I’ve done as an artist to make all these paintings, and then just put them up,” said Coe. “People will know that I made these, and I’m very proud of them. And if we can just help a few people not have to have stage 4 colon cancer, that’s a remarkable thing to do in the world.”

If Coe had been diagnosed when he first had symptoms, his treatment would have been easier and his prognosis would have been much better. But Coe ignored his early, mild symptoms, like seeing blood on his toilet paper. He wasn’t getting regular checkups with a doctor back then either — someone who might have suggested he get screened just in case. The CDC now recommends people start screenings for colon cancer at age 45, or earlier if they’re in a vulnerable group. 

By the time Coe was diagnosed two years ago, when he was 51, his cancer was already late-stage. 

“When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, it’ll stop your heart,” Coe said, fighting back tears. “It’ll really make you just reevaluate everything. And that certainly was the case for my wife and I. We sat in our car and cried. It’s hard to talk about when you know that you’re going to be impacting your family so deeply.”

A close up of a painting with the word, "return."
Jim Coe talks about his series of paintings and his emotions associated with colorectal cancer. His series portray the difficult emotions of being diagnosed with cancer, his overall look on his life and moving forward. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Late-stage colon cancer is harder to treat and has lower survival rates. Over the last two years, Coe has endured radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. He said his diagnosis has changed the way he feels about time. 

“I have three daughters I love, a wife. I want to be there for them,” said Coe. “But I don’t know if I will be or not. So what that means is that you have to make the most out of every day.”

Coe’s treatment wasn’t as simple as he and his doctors had hoped. But recently, he got his first “clean” scan, which means the doctors couldn’t detect any cancer in his body. His health is uncertain though, so he’ll continue to get checks every three months. 

“Right now I’m in the 15% of people that get to live for two years with stage 4 cancer,” said Coe. “I feel pretty blessed about that. And I want to stay in that 15% for a good decade, that’d be great. We’ll change all the rules if we can.”

In addition to his paintings on canvas, Coe also paints rocks. He calls them his hope series. On one round rock, a tiny hot air balloon adds a piece to turn the word “nope” into “hope.” He’s been leaving the rocks in a little cubby by the pillars outside his cancer treatment center in Wasilla. Coe has noticed that the hope rocks always disappear soon after he leaves them.

“I don’t know if you are picking it up for a loved one or for yourself,” said Coe. “Maybe you just need it for a day but tomorrow, maybe you’ll meet someone that would need it also.”

Coe said knowing people see his hope rocks, get inspired by them and take them home is part of the magic of making art.

Coe and his paintings will be at Providence Alaska Cancer Center in Anchorage for an art opening Saturday Sept. 16, from 10 to 11 a.m. The paintings will stay up through Sept. 22. 

RELATED: Report shows wide regional disparities seen in Alaska colorectal and lung cancer rates

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