Loveland resident’s artwork depicting cancer treatment journey on display at Military Women’s Memorial – Loveland Reporter-Herald
Loveland-based retired Air Force Colonel Jeanette Minnich said doctors discovered and surgically removed a cancerous tumor in her colon in 2017, and she and her family believed they had discovered the cancer early. But in December 2019, Minnich was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
“It was a complete surprise,” she said, adding that her family history has included heart failure, but never this. “I was the first case of cancer (in my family) that I was aware of.”
But as she embarked on her recovery journey through chemotherapy and radiation, Minnich found a truly unique way to convey what she was going through — illustrated cartoons discussing recovery, treatment, and sometimes even death.
Her artwork is now on display in an exhibit just outside Arlington National Cemetery.
In the army
Minnich said she served in the Air Force for 24 years and retired as a colonel in 2003. She said she had a great time on this experience, stationed twice in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and the Pentagon.
“The first 10 years were during the Cold War, so it was pretty routine,” she said. “The second 14 years was after the fall, so it got very busy and chaotic because there were events all over the world.”
Jeanette Minnich shows off a sign a friend made to hang from her “She Shed,” built by her husband, Don Ellis, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in their Loveland backyard. He built the side shed while she was being treated for cancer and complications. During her chemo and radiation treatment after finding out she had stage 4 colon cancer in 2019, she drew a series of comics she called her “Cancer Diaries” that illustrate what it’s like to go through cancer treatment in a lighthearted way. help people understand the difficulties. Some of her art is on display at the Military Women’s Memorial at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)
Retired Lt. Col. Cynthia Scott-Johnson said Minnich was her boss when she was stationed at the Pentagon. She said that while she was a hard worker who “really knew how to dot the i’s and cross your T’s”, she remembers her as a very caring person.
Minnich eventually met her husband, Don Ellis, in their church choir while teaching at the Air Force Academy in southern Colorado. The couple eventually moved to Loveland in 2002 with their children Venetia and Jonathan Ellis.
The Cancer Diaries
Nearly two decades later, in January 2020, she began her treatment following her diagnosis. She said one of the hardest things after the diagnosis was not the cancer itself, but the side effects of the treatment.
“I don’t think I suffered any pain from my cancer,” she said. “Everything in the past year and a half, all the misery, has been caused by the treatments.”
She said that several months after her treatment, her husband suggested that she use her artistic talents (Minnich described herself as a frustrated artist at the time) to illustrate what she was going through. So she started an illustration program on Don Ellis’ iPad and got to work.
Minnich eventually called these illustrations “Cancer Diaries.” They depicted strange ailments caused by her treatments, what she was going through, and even her thoughts about preparing for death.
The diaries, she said, proved to be a quick and fun way to post small images about the difficulties of coping with cancer on Facebook.
Jeanette Minnich began her “Cancer Diaries” illustrations while experiencing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer. She said the process of creating the illustrations not only helped her process her experiences, but also those around her who wanted to help. (Photo courtesy of Jeanette Minnich)
Don and Venetia Ellis said they were proud of her when she started the cartoons.
Don Ellis said that while his wife has always been humble in her fine art, the work she did was good for her.
“It’s really the art therapy,” he said. “Which has been good for her.”
“It was good to see her pick up art again,” said Venetia Ellis, explaining that her mother had distanced herself from art for a short time. “It really boosted her spirit.”
Minnich said it also helped her friends find ways to really help her and better understand the process. She said she got a lot of praise and feedback from her friends on Facebook; the comics offered them a real way to help her through her treatment.
“It was another confirmation for me that trying to see the humor in the situation for myself was good for my own psyche and it was helpful for other people,” she said. “I’m certainly not the only one they know who suffers from cancer.”
From online to gallery
Around this time, Scott-Johnson, who is also the co-founder of Uniting US, a non-profit organization that seeks to inspire, empower, and unite the veteran community through the “healing powers of art,” was looking for artists for their” Summer with the Arts” exhibit. This exhibit brought together art from around the country during the summer, hosted at the Military Women’s Memorial gallery at the official entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Jeanette Minnich, center, will talk on Thursday, August 26, 2021, about a series of comics she created and called her “cancer diaries” that illustrate what it’s like to go through cancer treatment in a lighthearted way to help people overcome the difficulties. Some of her art is on display at the Military Women’s Memorial at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Her daughter, Venetia Ellis, left, watches one of the comics on a tablet. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)
Scott-Johnson said that when they were looking for artists, she reached out to Minnich and offered to join them.
Minnich accepted and Venetia Ellis, who works as an animator, prepared the strip to be printed on a poster and used in the gallery. Minnich is heading to DC this weekend for a ceremony honoring the artists, where she will see the prints in person.
Both Don and Venetia Ellis said they were very proud to have her work included in the list of artists and art in the exhibition. They also both said they’re happy she can see it all in person.
Venetia Ellis said it’s great that Minnich can travel safely with the course of the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccination that more people are getting, including Minnich.
“I’m happy, timing was everything,” said Venetia Ellis.
Minnich said that while she finds it amusing that despite her background and passion for fine art, including sculptures of her children around her home, the piece that ends up in a gallery is cartoons she drew to explain her experience.
Despite this, she said that the cartoons are not only a good way for her to express what she has been through, but also for others to empathize with a uniquely difficult experience.
“It’s the art that talked about a common problem that means a lot to a lot of people,” she said. “The cancer journey to the people with cancer and their loved ones, it’s a life-changing event.”