August 7, 2011

Cancer diagnosis alters artist's perspective

SUZI PIKER / Staff Writer

GRAY -- For Georgette L. Kanach, last week was a good week. She finally had the time and energy to paint her duck decoys, and she finally could get outdoors with her dogs.

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Suzi Piker

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Suzi Piker

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Since June, Kanach -- ''Georgie'' to her friends and family -- has learned to chart life into three-week intervals. Week one begins in Lewiston, where she undergoes chemotherapy to fight advanced-stage breast cancer. The rest of week one, and most of week two, are spent recuperating.

It's the third week, when the side effects have eased, that Kanach looks forward to most. That's when she can finally get back to her art.

Kanach, 56, has been an artist for as long as she can remember. She's reluctant to be defined by her illness, but she says she does feel changed since her diagnosis in March.

''You're never, ever the same, because you see things differently,'' she said. ''You think differently. You appreciate things differently. Until you go through it, you just don't know.''

Kanach's parents bought her a set of oil paints when she was 10. After a week's stay with her uncle, a painter in Rockland, ''it just went from there.''

A Master Maine Guide and an avid outdoorswoman, Kanach developed a love of nature growing up in Jackman, in the heart of hunting and fishing country on the Maine-Quebec border. Her appreciation of the outdoors eventually drew her to a job in L.L. Bean's hunting and fishing store, where she was a part-time salesclerk for a year and a half before going on disability leave.

From wood, antlers, feathers and eggs, Kanach carves and engraves detailed outdoor scenes.

In one piece, ''Luxury in the Rough,'' she carved the hard ivory enamel of an ostrich egg to reveal a buck charging through a forest of young trees. In another piece, Kanach transformed a moose antler into a bald eagle with wings in flight.

Her duck decoys are so lifelike that L.L. Bean hired her to paint decoys to sell in its catalog. And this fall, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will unveil a migratory-waterfowl stamp featuring Kanach's painting of two hooded merganser ducks.

Kanach had no health insurance before she worked at L.L. Bean, and although free cancer screening for women is available in Maine, she said she felt ''outside the system'' and was unsure how to take advantage of it.

Kanach isn't alone, according to 2008 statistics from the Community Profile of the Maine Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Its focus groups cite a lack of knowledge about available resources as a major reason why Maine women do not seek mammograms.

Other commonly cited reasons include a lack of symptom detection, a lack of perceived need (breast cancer doesn't run in the family) and other demands on time, such as family commitments.

Maine's mammogram statistics still compare well nationally. Among women older than 50, 84.3 percent have been screened, which ranks Maine eighth in the nation. For women older than 40, the screening rate is 81.8 percent, fifth in the nation.

Kanach's trips to Lewiston for chemotherapy have opened her eyes to the number of people undergoing cancer treatment. Alarmed at first, she now takes solace in the knowledge that others understand her experience.

''It's not just about me,'' she said, ''It's about everybody. You don't feel quite so alone.''

Kanach's daughter, Kelly Copp of Windham, sees a change in her mother. ''I think she's stopped and looked at life in a whole new way -- how short it can be,'' Copp said.

Kanach's studio, a small room at the end of a narrow hallway, nearly overflows with tools and art supplies. Next to the airbrushing wall is a desk dedicated to engraving, and next to that a carving and wood-burning station. Jars of brushes and stacked cans of paint jockey for space on the shelves.

Though she accomplishes a lot in the tiny room, Kanach hopes to have a small studio built near her house this fall. Besides offering creative expression, her art keeps her busy while she undergoes the aggressive cancer treatment, which started with a double mastectomy at the end of April.

She calls her art and her two beloved Brittany dogs her lifeline, and she credits them with getting her out of bed when she has a hard day. With a new set of decoys to finish and a studio to design, Kanach is decidedly focused on the future.

''I've never ever once said, 'Why me?''' she said. ''It just happened. What are you going to do? You have to have an upbeat way about yourself to get through it.''


Staff Writer Suzi Piker can be contacted at 791-6368 or at:


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Suzi Piker/ Content Producer; The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will feature Kanach's painting of two hooded merganser ducks for their migratory waterfolw stamp this fall.

Suzi Piker


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