Cancer patient begins art career during treatment

Scituate artist Becky O’Toole found herself noticeably short of breath while running one afternoon. Thinking it was a mental hurdle or potentially asthma, she was not overly concerned until large bruises began developing on her legs. After visiting her primary care physician, Becky was immediately directed to the emergency room, where she was soon diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and told she would need 4–6 weeks of chemotherapy right away.

This was not Becky’s first experience with Dana-Farber or cancer. In 2016, a mammogram detected early stage breast cancer. Becky was treated at Dana-Farber’s location in Weymouth, Mass., and fortunately recovered well.

As Becky began treatment for the second time, she was grateful for the support of her nurses and care team and wanted to do something special for them. She decided to turn her treatment room into a lively and fun place for staff to visit, so she set it up as her art studio: She would play upbeat music, bring all her art supplies, and paint as much as possible. She gave her paintings to nurses, doctors, and fellow patients. Filling her days with painting, Becky began perfecting her craft, and Pinkergreen, a Boston design firm, set up her website. While she was in the hospital for more than 100 days in 6 months, her work began selling out in the shops where she was represented. All of these sales brought in donations to Dana-Farber.

“There were some incredible humans who kept purchasing my artwork, which in turn gave me a need to create more,” Becky says. “This cycle of being needed, and then giving back to Dana-Farber by selling my work, was by far the best way for me to survive the experience.”

Becky’s “Paintings with Purpose” continued to gain momentum and she eventually started her business, The Pink Frame, with pink representing breast cancer. She sells exclusively in small shops and in galleries, including Kjeld Mahoney Gallery in Scituate, MA, and has now sold more than 2,000 paintings. Becky’s art focuses on ocean landscapes, a muse she found through her own cancer experience.

“I was gifted some beautiful adult coloring books, motivational books, scarves, and other wonderful gestures, but they all felt like cancer gifts,” Becky explains. “I loved the idea of giving someone going through treatment an ‘ocean view’—something beautiful to look at and take them away from the reality of what their everyday looked like.”

Now in remission, Becky says that her cancer diagnosis has ultimately led to something she never expected, including a partnership with Untold Brewing on a charity beer collection. She encourages others going through similar struggles to lean into what they love to find their strength.

Photo by Kjeld Mahoney Photography
Photo by Kjeld Mahoney Photography