Looking back, Nancy Foster wonders whether her decision as a young woman to pursue a dual major in visual art and art therapy at the College of New Jersey was a premonition. “My father wanted me to be a nurse, but somehow or another we are guided to what we should do in life,” she says. Now 61, Nancy was officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 11 years ago, although she has become aware that she had symptoms even before then. She credits her careers as an art therapist, a high school art teacher, and an artist in her own right for enhancing her ability to live as well as possible with the debilitating condition that affects an estimated one million people worldwide.
“I truly believe in the healing power of creating art,” she says. “It soothes and comforts you, which is why I wanted to devise a program that would help other people with MS.” To that end, just one year after pain and blurry vision caused by optic neuritis confirmed that she had MS, Nancy prepared a grant proposal for a program entitled “Watercolor as a Therapeutic Modality for Multiple Sclerosis”. She wrote: “Some common emotional responses to multiple sclerosis include denial, anger, guilt, fear, and a desire to regain control over one’s life. A diagnosis of MS implies a lifelong condition, progressive physical disability, emotional conflict and lasting adjustments. It can often trigger depression. Stress is a normal reaction to MS. Art can provide a positive stress-relieving temporary escape from the disease, alleviate mild depression, as well as provide the artist with an enhanced sense of self-worth, and the ability to control change.”
Nancy received $2,000 from Champions of Courage, a grant-giving program of the makers of the prescription MS drug called Betaseron. She used the money for supplies and served as a volunteer teacher for 24 students with MS for 12 weeks at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood, New Jersey near her home in Haddon Heights. Nancy maintains that her students, many of whom she still counts as friends, did indeed experience the promised benefits from learning to work in a fluid medium that allows even patients with shaky hands and impaired eyesight to create beautiful paintings.
Through it all, Nancy has been thankful for the loving support of her husband of 33 years, Paul, and their two children, Paul Jr., now 31, and Julia, now 28. “My family has encouraged me to keep living fully in spite of symptoms that come and go, including fatigue and some difficulty walking,” she says. “I eventually retired in 2010, but Julia was the one who urged me to keep teaching rather than give up when I received my diagnosis in 2004. She was in her senior year of high school, and she said ‘No way you’re quitting. You’re going to school!’ So I did. I never missed a day of teaching art. Julia was right!”
Nancy’s next endeavor, after retirement, was as an employee at “Say It with Clay” in Collingswood. The mission of the non-profit organization is to get people who have diverse special needs involved in projects with clay, a “process that creates pride, success, and motivation for healing”. She continues there on a pro bono basis.
Nancy has attended physical therapy sessions and is currently on an oral medication called Tecfidera instead of the injections of Betaseron she had previously been giving herself. Now she experiences no side effects at all.
She is grateful for that development, as well as for the fact that she has the “relapsing-remitting” form of MS with periods of remission, rather than one of the relentlessly progressive types. Even though she wakes up every morning to the uncertainly that comes with an unpredictable affliction, she sounds a hopeful note when she reiterates that art can be good medicine for coping with the challenges of multiple sclerosis and for making life seem more precious with each passing day.
By Sondra Forsyth