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Far From Over
Artist Gets Back On Horse For Annual Art Show
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Debi Bonsack has spent most of her life viewing the world through the eyes of an artist. Surrounded by her mother and two aunts who were artists, the Oakdale native cannot remember a time in her life when she thought of anything other than being an artist when she grew up.
It was not until her recent diagnosis of breast cancer that she began to see the world and herself for what they truly are.
“My cancer has taught me to see myself as who I am,” Bonsack shared. “It’s funny, but I have always seen myself as an artist. I am really just seeing myself for the first time as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend and a teacher to all of them.”
Bonsack and her husband Brad Keith have five daughters and one granddaughter. The eldest of the five is 33 and the youngest just 13. Her paternal grandmother, as well as a maternal aunt were both diagnosed with the disease well into their seventies. While their age and circumstances have not lead doctors to believe her diagnosis is hereditary, it is now a concern of hers for her own children and grandchildren.
Bonsack first discovered two lumps in late January of this year, however was unable to get in to see a doctor and receive a diagnosis until February. Her surgery to remove the cancerous tumors was performed in early March.
According to Bonsack and her husband, it was the early part of the journey that inspired them to tell their story. Bonsack’s diagnosis and treatment were delayed due to an overbooked medical office that happened to be in the middle of a move. Faced with scheduling conflicts and a lack of open availability, Bonsack spent many hours on the phone.
“I was on the phone pleading for a surgery date for the entire six weeks,” she said. “One of the lumps had quadrupled in size in two weeks, but I was unable to convince the surgeons and young medical assistant that it was urgent.”
After discovering the growths and prior to her official diagnosis, Bonsack admits to feeling as if she knew it was cancer. Sharing that while everyone around her told her she should not worry, it was probably fine — her instinct told her otherwise. And while she may have had personal insight to her diagnosis, her instinct was not privy to the fact that she also had an overactive hormone known as HER2NUE.
That is a hormone, which, according to Bonsack, causes the cancer cells to multiply at an overwhelming rate, explaining the aggressive growth of the two lumps she first detected.
The message she wants to share from her experience, however, is not one of hate or doom and gloom. While the couple admits to often feeling defeated and angry, they are now speaking out to encourage people to be their own advocate.
Bonsack, an art teacher and Keith, an Adaptive Physical Education Specialist, both at Beyer High, are not uneducated people. They are proactive givers, always looking to how they might be able to make a difference in the life of a struggling artist or for a student facing challenges. Now, they feel it necessary to reach out to their own peer group and encourage them to do the right thing.
“You have to be an advocate,” Keith said, “you can’t just trust the doctor.”
“Don’t let the health care ‘professionals’ be the ones in charge of your diagnosis and treatment program,” Bonsack said. “If it wasn’t for my tenacity, I would still be waiting for a mammogram. Get a second opinion…”
“But don’t slow the process down in getting the second opinion,” Keith added, sharing that a doctor with your best interest at heart should never take it personally if you request a second opinion.
Bonsack’s oncologist was not only receptive to the process, but adjusted her plan once he read the report from the doctor she consulted with at UC Davis.
Keith admits that his own family has been taken aback by the statement, challenging them with the thought that ‘doctors are supposed to know, how can you challenge a doctor.’
This experience is Keith’s argument; that being your own advocate and not being afraid to question the health care professionals can actually work in your favor. There are many positives in the case of his wife’s diagnosis. The cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes and it is Stage 1 Breast Cancer. The discovery of the HER2 hormone however, creates a very aggressive treatment path for Bonsack. Every 21 days for the next six months, she will spend the majority of a day (over seven hours) being pumped full of three different types of chemotherapy medication. The treatment is preceded by bags of antibiotics, steroids, benadryl and anti-nausea medications. At the conclusion of the six-month treatment plan, she will continue with one of the three chemo treatments for another 26 weeks.
“I have found having cancer is very humbling,” Bonsack stated. “It has put me in touch with reality. Until now, I have found success in every endeavor. This one I don’t have so much control over.
“I have always been an overachiever,” she continued. “It’s pretty hard to have that drive, though, when you don’t know what you can do to make it happen. I don’t know what caused my cancer and I don’t know what I need to do to recover from it. I have learned to trust in God and He will take care of me.”
Bonsack has also learned to trust her family and large circle of friends to help her up during times of darkness. Her two eldest daughters stayed with her in the hospital post surgery and sat beside her through her first full day of chemo. Friends and colleagues from as far as Korea have sent e-mails with sentiments of prayer for her during her recovery.
“Though this has been one of the hardest things we have ever had to deal with,” Keith said, “people have made it the most positive growing experience for us.
“Debi gains strength from the way we have been touched by so many Christians who are praying for her around the world.”
Learning to slow down and take it easy, however, does not come easy to this self-described Type A personality. With the Oakdale Rodeo just around the corner and with the help and determination of her husband, Bonsack will host the 16th Annual Oakdale Western Art Show.
Keith, along with his brother, recently restored the old dairy barn on the couple’s Orange Blossom Road property. The location is one that Bonsack describes as a ‘no-brainer’ for a Western Art Show. With the support of a few artist friends and the love and sweat of her husband and brother-in-law, the show will go on.
“My first painting I can remember doing was a cowboy boot when I was five years old,” she said. “This painting is still in me. I am part of this culture and this community. As long as I am here I feel the need to continue this venue.
“The show gives me a reason to paint again,” she added, admitting to feelings of great sadness and depression following her diagnosis — the show now gives her a focus.
“I have always been so goal oriented,” the artist said. “I really need this goal.”
Bonsack has a gift for placing simple items from lemons to aprons on a canvas with vibrant colors and movement to create art. Her work takes an every day item and makes it beautiful, inspiring, breathtaking. Since her diagnosis with cancer she has begun a new series of work entitled the ‘Pink Ribbon Series.’
“The Pink Ribbon Series is about taking time in an abstract world to enjoy the simple pleasures in it,” she said. “The pieces are collage like renderings of realistic subject matter surrounded by abstract textures and color.”
Just two weeks prior to this weekend’s art show the artist had eight Pink Ribbon pieces in progress.
“I usually work on one at a time,” she said of her creative process, adding that her diagnosis and recovery seems to be inspiring a number of ideas all at once.
Bonsack realizes her journey is far from over. Many chemo sessions and recovery time awaits her, yet she still manages to find the ability to laugh with her husband, love her children and appreciate her life.
When addressing what her diagnosis has taught her, she said, “Definitely to stop and enjoy the little things in life. I paint them, but I haven’t really seen them. God has given us these incredible gifts and we are so busy pushing them out of the way, we can’t see that they are what we are searching for.
“I feel grateful that I was given the opportunity to see my life in a different perspective,” she said. “I hope my life will change someone else’s perspective in return. I know it already has.”
The 16th Annual Western Art Show will be hosted Saturday, April 11 in the Bonsack’s 120-year-old refurbished barn located at 13480 Orange Blossom Road, Oakdale. The barn will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Visiting artists are also invited to bring their work and display it in the ‘Visitors Section.’ Bonsack’s work may also be viewed on her website at, messages may be sent via the website.