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Coree Coppinger, cancer survivor and photographer, gave Columbia St. Mary's Cancer Center the $5,000 she won in the Lilly Oncology On Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey Art Competition and Exhibition.
For the better part of the past year, Coree Coppinger has been receiving chemotherapy and physical therapy at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Milwaukee for her lymphoma and its assorted complications. For those 12 arduous months, Coree says she received exceptional care, touched with a personal level of attention that made her feel not just cared for but cared about. Now she is returning the favor.

In September, it was announced that Coree, a photographer by trade, won second place in the Lilly Oncology On Canvas: Expressions of a Cancer Journey Art Competition and Exhibition. Out of more than 531 submissions, her photograph, “Chemo Brain,” was chosen as Best of Exhibition – 2nd Place and Best Photography by a Person Diagnosed with Cancer.

Part of the award included $5,000 to be donated to a cancer-related charity or program of her choosing – she chose Columbia St. Mary’s Cancer Center.

“It’s just my way to pay it back a little,” says the Milwaukee native. “The care I received was just phenomenal. I had a team of doctors making decisions off of the whole of me. They all attempted to make some sort of emotional contact, which you don’t always expect.”

Coree’s cancer first presented in October 2011 as severe back and hip pain. She figured she had pulled a muscle or something. But after several days of the pain worsening, Coree suddenly lost the feeling in her legs. It was then she went to the ER.

“They told me my body was riddled with cancer,” she says, “and that the tumors had shattered some of the vertebras of my back.”

Coree was rushed to surgery to repair her back. After the nine-hour procedure, which involved fusing the vertebras and inserting steel rods along her spine, she faced months of rehab on top of the chemotherapy.

One day in the early summer of 2012, as she was coming in for chemotherapy, Coree saw a poster on the medical oncology department’s wall for the fifth annual Lilly Oncology On Canvas competition. Even though the submission deadline had already passed, the competition committee told her that they’d accept her entry if she wanted to submit something. So she got to work on a new project.

“It’s a compilation of multiple pictures, composed and compressed together to make kind of a miserable picture of what it felt like to have chemo,” she says. “Your cells are sort of melting away – this slow decay. Outwardly, it’s a psychological thing, being torn away from an environment you were used to. Being alienated because you just didn’t fit it anymore. That’s what I tried to put on paper.”

"Chemo Brain" is an extremely dark and personal piece. Coree’s entire photography career has been built upon shining a light onto the gritty, often ugly realities of life. And she brought the same approach to this new project. It was because of that unfiltered roughness that she thought she had no chance of winning.

 
"Chemo Brain," Coppinger's dark and personal piece is "a compilation of multiple pictures, composed and compressed together to make kind of a miserable picture of what it felt like to have chemo."
I was shocked. I totally forgot I even entered,” she laughs. “For the life of me, I have no idea why they chose it. They usually choose cheerful, hopeful kind of things and this was more grim, but it was how I felt after chemo.”

Today, with her chemo now complete, life is starting to return to normal for the professional freelance photographer.

“A year ago I was told I had maybe 3 months to live. Well, I’m still alive,” says Coree. “There is no sign of cancer in my body and I’m walking – I’m slow, but I’m walking.

“I’m beginning to feel human again,” she adds.

Donor gifts to CSM Cancer Programs fund new technologies, items and upgrades that provide comfort and privacy to patients, education, survivorship programs, and outreach and screenings to at-risk communities. 

  

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