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Rare Chair Affair Helps Create Community Through Art For Breast Cancer Survivors

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But while awareness has increased, many women and men continue to die from this disease. One organization trying to make change in breast cancer policies and research is the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition (WBBC).

For the past 20 years, the WBCC has hosted an annual Rare Chair Affair. It's a fundraiser where breast cancer survivors, thrivers, and family members who've lost loved ones create unique works of art by designing and painting repurposed chairs that reflect their breast cancer stories.

Kelly Gramblika and Tina Timm are two of the 13 artists participating in this year's Rare Chair Affair. And it marks the fifth for Gramblika as a Rare Chair artist.

“The best part of this is that you don’t have to be an artist. The girls that are here help you and they encourage you, and some of them love you," she says.

Gramblika was diagnosed with stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer in 2010 at 39 years-old. "It was extremely devastating," she says. "They needed to start chemo the day I feel that they told me I had cancer, and I felt like I needed a year to decide whether or not I wanted treatment."

Treatment moved forward. A year after her diagnosis, Gramblika was clear of cancer, and continues to be to this day.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
Kelly Gramblika's chair is inspired by the Beatles song, "Here Comes The Sun."

This year, Gramblika's chair is an antique bench, painted with bright blues, white, and bronze accents. A meticulously placed mosaic sun rises across the bench. She says it was inspired by her granddaughter that sings the Beatles song, "Here Comes The Sun" to her.

"Basically at the end, her part is 'it's all right,' and we all feel like it's going to be all right," says Gramblika. "And the broken pieces of glass to me are like the broken pieces on my body. I'm broken, how I fell, but we're all beautiful no matter how broken we've been."

Tina Timm was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in January. Two tumors were found in her right breast during a routine mammogram — each with a different cancer. Timm underwent a bilateral mastectomy to avoid radiation. She says the cancer didn't spread, allowing her to avoid chemotherapy.

"The imaging consultant had me come over and look at it when I asked her why she wanted to image my right breast again," Timm recalls. "She's like, 'Well, there's something that I just want to make sure we're getting the right pictures of,' and I saw it. And I walked out of there numb — I just knew."

Credit Courtesy of Tina Timm
Tina Timm's chair is inspired by "Alice in Wonderland." As she went through her cancer diagnosis and treatment, Timm says it felt like "falling down a rabbit hole and you land in a strange place where nothing makes sense."

This is Timm's first time being involved with the Rare Chair Affair, and for her it became part of her treatment plan.

"For me, this was a better way to end this year on a really high note and do something beautiful with this year. Because this year started out pretty damn awful," she says.

Timm's chair is inspired by Alice In Wonderland. "I feel like being diagnosed with breast cancer you fall down a rabbit hole and you land in a strange place where nothing makes sense," she says. "Pretty soon you're meeting all kinds of wacky new characters, they're giving you all kinds of advice. You've got to make decisions very quickly and you've gotta be on your toes and keep your wits about you."

Just like the character Alice, Timm says that although she's survived a nightmare, she's changed. Timm says that getting involved with the program helps her connect with others who can relate to her experience, even though all of their stories are unique.

"Art is such a different expression for everyone and it's as unique as cancer." - Tina Timm

"It's just been a really great experience, not only with [Kelly], but with everybody here and seeing this chair come to life. I amazed myself with how artistic I didn't realize I was," she says. "Art is such a different expression for everyone and it's as unique as cancer."

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
Kelly Gramblika (left) and Tina Timm are two of this year's Rare Chair Affair artists.

Gramblika says she feels the same sense of comfort and community when the group gets together to work on their pieces.

"When I journal, those are thoughts that I'm keeping to myself and when I do art everybody else gets to see how I'm feeling," Gramblika explains. "I like to do that and I do it with a group of people that can do the same, and we all share a lot of the similar thoughts and feelings."

As cancer survivors, Gramblika and Timm want to share the message that cancer isn't pink and it isn't pretty.

READ: Moving Breast Cancer Awareness Away From Gimmicks And Into Action

Their top recommendations: get your mammograms, don't wait, and know your body.

"In my case, I had that prescription waiting for me for four months because [my doctor] thought he felt something. And just because he thought he felt something it was something, and I should've just went," says Gramblika. "Don't be too busy — you're never too busy to save your life."

The 20th Annual Rare Chair Affair will be held Friday at the Wisconsin Country Club.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.