The Art of Hope and Joy: Kirstin’s Story

Story from UAB Medicine News 

UAB Medicine cancer survivor Kirstin Hoff creates art to raise awareness, support charities, and lift spirits through volunteer work at The Kirklin Clinic and elsewhere.

When Kirstin Hoff was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, she chose right then to focus on the positive. It was a good strategy, not only because what she calls “a spirit of hope and joy” comes naturally to her, but also because her journey from diagnosis to survivorship met many obstacles. Without the positive attitude that Hoff would maintain through each level of treatment or setback, her experience might have been far more difficult. After getting through that struggle, however, she decided to go even further by utilizing her positive energy for the benefit of other cancer patients and their families. She established Chick4acause, her very own private mission of hope and joy.

The “chick” refers to the whimsical characters of her mixed media paintings of chickens, each of which includes found “treasures” attached to the work. Hoff’s non-profit company Chick4acause is promoted via social media, and proceeds from the sale of any works go to four cancer organizations. Customers may select which organization receives proceeds from any purchase they make. As Hoff insists, however, the mission goes well beyond the matter of fundraising.

“My mission is less about raising money and more about setting an example,” Hoff says. “I hope patients see that, after my own battle with breast cancer, I’m energetic and fully engaged with volunteer work at The Kirklin Clinic, awareness work, and fundraising. I hope I’m an example of survivorship as well as a messenger.

My main message is that our little efforts of kindness and joy can make a difference. I would like to show others that, very often, if we choose the mood and outlook of that journey, then we aren’t letting cancer make all the decisions. I’m hoping to form a community of people who can share their own stories about making positive choices.”

Hoff understands the benefits of making those choices, because she ran into what she calls “roadblocks” at various points in treatment.

“I was hospitalized with a C. diff infection at one point, serious enough that, while I was in intensive care, the doctors were wondering if I would survive it. I came down with shingles while getting radiation treatment. We kept hitting every obstacle that my body could find. But I chose to focus on the good things surrounding that terrible situation. The number of people supporting me, and the friends and family looking after my kids, were blessings that I kept in mind. I tried to go through this with the most positive, joyful attitude I could manage.”

Hoff says she wasn’t sure what to expect after being diagnosed with ductile and metastatic breast cancer, being unfamiliar with the vocabulary of cancer, her options, and what approach her doctors might take.  After meeting with an interdisciplinary team at UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, under the care of Andres Ferero, MD, and Helen Krontiras, MD, Hoff  was relieved to learn that the team shared her upbeat attitude.

“It’s sad to say, but before I was immersed in this world of cancer, I didn’t even know about UAB’s center,” Hoff notes. “I can’t fully convey the emotional impact of my team’s positive energy. It was a source of comfort and security, almost like I had an entire army fighting for me. Their approach instantly put me at ease.  My team completely sympathized with my desire to delay chemotherapy until our family could get back from a beach trip. I think they knew, especially under those circumstances, how important that vacation would be to us. I also had tickets to a concert. The doctors understood that I needed some positive moments of joy and normalcy before treatment started. Dr. Ferero has this unbelievable energy; he’s so supportive and upbeat, so passionate about his work, and so humble. I don’t think I have the words to express how much he means to me.”

She may not have found words yet, but Hoff did find a way to express her personal message of joy and hope. Hoff says the means of doing so was there all along.

“I had been painting these chickens as art gifts for friends and family during the holidays. I started paying attention to people who visited my house during December who might say, ‘I would purchase one of those,’ or ‘I didn’t know you painted.’ It sort of clicked with me that I could sell this artwork as a fundraiser. I wanted the chicks to be whimsical and fun, but with a message of hope. Each piece has a special personalized “surprise” on the back to get the joy started for someone. So I apply items to each painting that convey these things, such as re-purposed children’s clothes, or re-purposed books I find at thrift stores that have positive quotes or messages.”

Very soon after her treatment, Hoff was determined to get involved with volunteer work at The Kirklin Clinic, as well as creating Chick4acause and sharing her story of survivorship. Her first efforts were with The Angel Squad, a group of volunteers who offer compassionate services to breast cancer patients and their caregivers.

“When I was undergoing treatment, the interaction with my Angel and the others was incredible. I started working with them as soon as I was well enough. From that point I wanted to find a way to make an impact by spreading some kind of positive message. The world, especially recently, already seems filled with negativity, and that’s a big driving point. You can get caught up in the larger view and see yourself as insignificant. How could you possibly make a difference? But the mission grows over time. I now have four organizations that proceeds go to. I’ve also sent pieces to Arizona and Canada for charities that conduct silent auctions. I’m getting so much response by word of mouth and through Facebook and Instagram.”

Hoff insists that the fundraising effort is by no means the whole story of her work. She sees her mission to build awareness and establish a community of story-sharing survivors as the primary function of her efforts. For Hoff, the small measures add up.

“It’s something I’m trying to teach my kids right now. Don’t wait for the big opportunity for some huge project. Do the little things. My 13-year-old daughter goes with me to visit elderly residents of memory care facilities with the Good Samaritan groups from our church; my 12-year-old son goes with me to thrift stores to search for little treasures and objects we can attach to the paintings. They are learning about the satisfaction and joy these small efforts can bring. I have tried to emphasize that everyone has some gift or ability that they can use.

“My kids also have a sense of humor about me and my mission, which is its own kind of joy. The other day my daughter asked, ‘Mom, why do you have to turn everything into a life lesson?’ You have to be able to laugh about it. But I still believe in choosing your role. I have a piece of art I found at Southern Makers that reads, ‘Kindness is a choice. It’s not a random act.’ That speaks to me so deeply. This is how we make neighborhoods or hospitals or schools a happier, healthier place to be. More than that, I think it’s contagious. Even the individual who buys one of the chicks gets a measure of joy by contributing to a good cause. They have, in a sense, been brought into a community where hope and joy are so vital and crucial to any of us dealing with cancer.”

Hoff still faces a long-term regimen of medication and checkups, but she’s approaching that with the same hope and upbeat demeanor with which she tackles all the work that Chick4acause entails. She says her appreciation for the community of survivors grows as well.

“I think everyone goes through it in their own way,” she says. “I know how many people have undergone much more intense radiation, harsher chemo, and greater loss than I have. I lost my mother to colon cancer last year. My mother-in-law battled with intestinal cancer. My message is that it’s much more bearable if we make the effort to share hope. When I’m working with the Angel Squad, or if I’m in mammography or in the clinic, I tell patients I meet that I let my doctors do the worrying while I put as much joy and happiness into my life as possible. That’s the partnership that I feel I have established with UAB. They know what they are doing, so I trust them. I never think in terms of breast cancer recurrence, or ‘what if.’ They have a wealth of knowledge, so they don’t need me for the medical end of handling my care. I handle the cheerleading!”