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  • Writer's pictureGabija Steponenaite

Artist and cancer survivor believes dreams not followed are tripped over

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

It took a breast cancer and a rare form of leukaemia for Emily

Thornton-Calvo, 66, to readjust her life's course and start fulfilling her childhood dream: being an artist.

In her father's shadow

Reflecting on her early career choices she said: "I did not want to be a starving artist. My father was a fine artist and our daily lives balanced between "feast and famine."

Emily grew up on the Northside of Chicago, in the family of a school teacher and a visual artist. Both parents probably chose marriage as a "safe life passage."

At first, her father chose a Jesuit priest vocation. "Irish families had to have one priest in the family. More, my father was gay and wanted to be with the other guys who, according to him, were probably gay too. Eventually, he left the Seminary, because he wanted to have children, and for that, he needed a woman," Emily said.

Emily's mother was a complete opposite: reserved, meticulous, strict, and often in somber moods. She chose the teacher's vocation mainly because all her family was teachers and got married because that was expected of women in the early fifties. "My mother always wanted to be bright and sunny, but she was always dark and depressed. She was not a happy person, but very spiritual," Emily said.

Her mother's depressive moods and her father's eccentric behavior often made Emily balance between two extremes. When Emily was sixteen, she started journaling and turned her anxious thoughts into poetry and creative writings.

Emily admired her father for his non-conformist spirit, his creativity, and empathy, so much that she even put aside her own desire to be a fine art artist. It was easier to become a writer and poet. "I did not want him to look over my shoulder," she said.

Her father never saved a dime. When he retired, he even had to take a job as a phone-psychic. The job advert said: "no experience needed," and he successfully "consulted" people

Single motherhood is worse than a cancer

Hoping to have a more secure future, Emily has started her independent life on a predictable path: graduated from high school, got married, and had two daughters. She had a career in advertising as an associate creative director with Frankel (now Arc) on their Target account, copywriter at SPM Communications (a leading healthcare ad agency), and Bell + Howell—all in the Chicago area.

From 9:00 am to 5:00 pm she was a marketing consultant and a poet in the evenings or on weekends. 1999 was a particularly challenging year: her father was dying, her older daughter was getting married, and Emily also agreed to produce a play for National Poetry Slam in Chicago. After a couple of months of franticly trying to balance her responsibilities, she paused, took a deep breath, and realised that she got priorities wrong.

"I quit my job and started freelancing as a writing and marketing consultant to have more time for family and my creative projects. It was scary: I had a mortgage and a little bit of my savings. Hardly anything," she said. After her divorce, she found herself in a vicious cycle of living from paycheque to paycheque and raising two girls alone.

"Being a single mother was harder than beating two cancers. It was unrelenting," she recalled.

Although her life slowly started shaping as Emily always wanted, her fear of not being able to pay her bills was alive as ever.

Until one fatal day.

Bad Hair Day

Course redirection: two cancers

In 2010, she lied in bed and felt a lump in her breast. "When I looked at the mammogram images where I saw the lump, it felt like I am looking at evil. The diagnosis showed invasive ductal carcinoma or stage 1. I was not scared, I felt like I was given one more task I need to deal with," she said.

Emily did not know that her breast cancer was just one part of a more complex story.

Not long after her successful breast cancer treatment, she started feeling chronically tired, her body was covered in numerous "impressive" bruises. She prescribed these signs to her tendency of "being klutzy," till one day her nose bled for an hour and forced her to call the doctor.

Within a couple of days, Emily found herself in a hospital, in strict isolation, and with a diagnosis: APL leukaemia - a very rare form of blood cancer. Her odds of survival during the first week were 50/50 and treatment included drinking…arsenic. "My ‘old’ immune system needed to be killed for my bone marrow to ‘reboot’ and to start producing healthy cells," said Emily.

Although her physical reality seemed bleak and fear inciting, she forced herself to find joy in simple things. She started a blog "In Emily's head" where she humorously shared her experiences.

"A writer has to own a feeling, she is writing about. I wanted to own a feeling of being victorious instead of being a victim. It forced me to be positive," she said.

She did not accept her diagnosis as a death sentence and spent her time writing, painting, greeting visitors who kept showing up so often that a nurse even suspected that Emily might be an unidentified celebrity.

In everyday lives, everyone sometimes needs to stop for a moment and to re-evaluate tasks, review endless "to-do lists" and regroup priorities. "Getting leukaemia was a pause in my life. Everything has stopped. I did not have to do or produce anything. I was off the hook of life and there is a peace in that," Emily said.

Watercolour, 2017 Emily Thornton-Calvo

Fear and doubt would "dribble in like saline solutions from an IV" in the evenings when her family and friends left her room and the hospital's hallway fell silent.

There was one night when she doubted if she would make it. APL leukaemia can cause a massive internal haemorrhage, which is not painful. "I was grateful for that," Emily reflected. By then, Emily's daughters were grown up, grandchildren were old enough to remember her and it seemed like she had accomplished enough in her personal life.

But Emily's poems, paintings, and books never reached their readers. "I was sad for all the things left in me to give," she said.

Dreams not followed are tripped over

When Emily was released after 30 days in the hospital, she unrolled her car window and stuck her head in the wind: "I felt like a dog taken for a ride. Happy."

Leukeamea was Emily's life's second lesson which forced her to embrace the artist in her. I knew that I'd learned what I was supposed to learn when I had breast cancer: that there were more than a few artistic projects on my bucket list and it was time to empty the bucket. I realised that dreams not followed are tripped over. It was time for my 2nd act."

Emily wrote in her short cancer survivor's essay:

"I always knew life was unfair. And like other aspects of life, cancer is unfair and absurd. It strikes many who did everything right.

I've learned the art of living is to interpret or "colour" the pervasive absurdities with a beauty, an irony, or compassion that makes the nonsense less disagreeable—and even amusing. Doing so invites me to engage more fully and report, create, and act with greater mindfulness, compassion and joy.

I am learning to grab the gusto. I eat more cake, let others know I love them more often, and try not to settle for less than I deserve. More importantly, I choose to be the person I am meant to be: a writer and painter. Through humor and art, I redefine my world and want to share that message to help others create their own world. Some might consider this positive thinking. I consider this positive “doing."

Now, from 9 to 5 Emily is an artist. She spends her time writing a book about her eccentric father, attending watercolour classes at Ed Hinkley's studio in Chicago, and participates in Sunday poetry slams at a legendary Chicago jazz bar, the Green Mill. For many years she helped to manage Chicago Slam Poetry. She had dozens of art shows, feature readings, and published her poetry book "Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd. " Her marketing writing projects now await for the late evening hours or weekends.

To learn more about Emily and her work in her own words you can find on her website.

Emily's book Lending Color to the Otherwise Absurd could be found on

Emily reads Letter to Picasso at August House in Chicago

P.S. Emily and I attended watercolour classes at Ed Hinkley's studio in Chicago. On Wednesday nights, she would walk in carrying bags of paper, paints, books… and greeted everyone with her contagious smile. She kept drawing tiny people crawling on rocks, trees, and bridges. I kept peeking at her work and wondered “What is this all about?” When Emily would leave a class, remaining students would say: "She is amazing, her attitude is inspirational." Indeed she is. Later, we started our goals club where we both tried to complete our weekly tasks and keep each other accountable. Eventually, this goal club turned into an "unachieved goals club" since laughing at life and sharing stories were a lot more fun than taking lockboxes to a re-sailer or organising 2001 tax returns.

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