Loveland resident’s artwork depicting cancer treatment journey on display at Military Women’s Memorial – Loveland Reporter-Herald

Loveland resident and retired Air Force Col. Jeanette Minnich said doctors detected and surgically removed a cancerous tumor in her colon in 2017, and she and her family assumed they caught the cancer early. But, in December of 2019, Minnich was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

“It was a complete surprise,” she said, adding that her family history contained heart failure but never this. “I was the first case of cancer (in my family) that I was aware of.”

But as she began her recovery journey through chemotherapy and radiation, Minnich found a truly unique way to get across what she was going through — illustrated cartoons that discussed recovery, treatment and, at times, even death.

Her artwork is now featured in a display just outside of Arlington National Cemetery.

In the military

Minnich said she served in the Air Force for 24 years, retiring as a colonel in 2003. She said she had a great time during this experience, being stationed in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and the Pentagon twice.

“The first 10 years were during the Cold War, so it was fairly routine,” she said. “The second 14 years were after the fall, so it got very busy and chaotic as there were events all over the world.”

Jeanette Minnich shows off a sign a friend made to hang on her “She Shed” built by her husband, Don Ellis, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in their Loveland backyard. He built the she shed while she was going through treatment for cancer and complications. During her chemo and radiation treatment after finding out in 2019 she had stage 4 colon cancer, she drew a series of comics she called her “Cancer Diaries” that illustrate what it is like to go through cancer treatment in a light-hearted way to 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 while she was a hard worker who “really knew how to dot your 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 she was teaching at the Air Force Academy in southern Colorado. Eventually, the couple moved to Loveland in 2002 with their children Venetia and Jonathan Ellis.

The cancer diaries

Almost two decades later, in January of 2020, she began her treatment following her diagnosis. She said that one of the hardest parts after the diagnosis was not the cancer itself, but the side-effects from the treatment.

“I don’t think I have suffered any pain from my cancer,” she said. “Everything in the past year and a half, any misery, has been caused by the treatments.”

She said that several months into her treatment her husband suggested that she use her artistic talents (Minnich described herself at the time as a frustrated artist) to illustrate what she was going through. So, she launched up an illustration program on Don Ellis’ iPad and got to work.

Minnich eventually named these illustrations “Cancer Diaries.” They portrayed weird ailments brought on by her treatments, what she was going through and even her thoughts around preparing for death.

The diaries, she said, proved a way to post little visuals into the difficulties in dealing with cancer to Facebook in a quick and funny way.

Jeanette Minnich started her “Cancer Diaries” illustrations as she experienced treatment for stage 4 colon cancer. She said the process of making the illustrations helped not only her work through her experiences, but those around her who wanted to help. (Photo courtesy of Jeanette Minnich)

Don and Venetia Ellis said they were proud of her when she got to work on the cartoons.

Don Ellis said that while his wife has always been humble of 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 picking up art again,” Venetia Ellis said, explaining her mom had stepped away from art for a brief time. “It really boosted her spirit.”

Minnich said it also helped her friends find ways to really help her and more deeply understand the process. She said she received a lot of praise and feedback from her friends on Facebook; the comics provided a real way for them to help her during her treatment.

“It was reaffirming for me that trying to see the humor in the situation myself was good for my own psyche and it was helpful for other people,” she said. “I am certainly not the only person they know suffering from cancer.”

From online to gallery

Around this time Scott-Johnson, who is also the co-founder of Uniting US, a nonprofit that works to inspire, empower and unite the veteran community through the “healing powers of art,” was looking for artists for their “Summer with the Arts” exhibition. This exhibit brought together art from across the country together over the summer hosted at the Military Women’s Memorial gallery at the official entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Jeanette Minnich, center, talks Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, about a series of comics she created and called her “Cancer Diaries” which illustrate what it is like to go through cancer treatment in a light-hearted way to 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. Her daughter, Venetia Ellis, left, looks at one of the comics on an tablet. (Jenny Sparks/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Scott-Johnson said when they were looking for artists, she reached out to Minnich and offered to have her join.

Minnich accepted and Venetia Ellis, who works as an animator, prepared the comic to be printed on a poster and used in the gallery. Minnich will be heading to D.C. over the weekend for a ceremony honoring the artists, where she will get to see the prints in person.

Both Don and Venetia Ellis said they were very proud to know her work was included in the list of artists and art in the exhibit. They also both said they are happy she is able to go and see it all in person.

Venetia Ellis said it is great that Minnich will safely be able to travel with the course of the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccination that more people are getting, including Minnich.

“I’m happy, timing was everything,” Venetia Ellis said.

Minnich said while she finds it funny 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 are cartoons she drew to explain her experience.

Despite this, she said the cartoons serve as a good way not only for her to express what she went through, but for others to empathize with a uniquely difficult experience.

“It is the art that was speaking to a very common issue that means a lot to many people,” she said. “The cancer journey to the people with cancer and their loved ones, it is a life-changing event.”

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