by Chris Ayers
On the one-year anniversary of his cancer diagnosis, Hollywood character designer and artist Chris Ayers decided to commemorate it by starting a sketchbook he called The Daily Zoo. His goal was to draw an animal a day for a year, hoping it would challenge his imagination and give him the opportunity to celebrate the gift of each healthy day by doing something he loves: making art. He succeeded in his goal, drawing an animal each day for an entire year – and beyond. Nearly 10 years later, his Daily Zoo drawings (along with commentary about his cancer experience) have been collected into a series of books called The Daily Zoo, with a portion of the proceeds going to cancer charities and research. This is his story – in his own words.
When I started drawing an animal a day in 2006 on the one-year anniversary of my April 1st leukemia diagnosis (that’s right, I was told that I had cancer on April Fools’ Day!), I certainly had no idea that I would still be adding to this collection over three thousand days later. In fact, at that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would still be alive nine years later.
Shortly out of treatment and having only recently begun to feel back to “normal” physically, I was not spending my days looking years ahead. Instead, I was more focused on appreciating the day at hand and slowly re-acclimating to some of the activities I had enjoyed pre-cancer. Perhaps more important, much of my conscious thought – and probably a lot of my subconscious thought as well – was devoted to trying to process and more fully understand what had just happened to me. The journey of the previous year had been a doozy: full of grave uncertainties, pendulum-like swings across the emotional spectrum, and an inordinate number of needles. I was confused. I was also curious. Curious to discover how that journey had affected me, and curious to start getting to know this new me: Chris Ayers, cancer survivor.
So much has happened since I was treated for leukemia and given a new lease on life. I’ve gotten married and, through the miracle of in vitro fertilization, become a father. And in terms of The Daily Zoo, it has been a most unexpected journey. Along the way I’ve been introduced to beautiful and inspiring people, including fellow cancer survivors, artists, and fans from around the world. It has led to such extraordinary opportunities like exhibitions of my work in Paris and Italy and speaking engagements both here in the U.S. and abroad. It has also introduced me to cancer-related organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Be the Match (operated by the National Marrow Donor Program), and I have been fortunate to collaborate with them in raising funds and awareness to fight this disease.
But one of the most rewarding results of sharing my experience of using art as a healing tool has been that it has helped others in their own healing and artistic journeys. The Daily Zoo project was conceived as a healing tool solely for myself. It began as a very intimate daily exercise between my imagination and a pencil and paper. I was calling upon my lifelong love of drawing animals to help bring a new dawn to the darkness that cancer had cast. Publication of the drawings was never the original goal, but when that opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance.
Through the books, to my sincere amazement, the Zoo has now become a healing tool for others as well. Many cancer survivors have found the humor and heart of the books to be a welcome distraction from the rigors of treatment, as well as a source of hope for recovery. All of this has been gratifying, of course, but I also find that having my work resonate so deeply with others is humbling, and can be overwhelming at times.
The Daily Zoo may have inspired some of you, but you in turn have inspired me with your comments and your own stories of facing challenges. These experiences are healing for me in that they reinforce my decision to do the Zoo and to share my journey and art with others. The more positive influence my work may have, the more the scars of my own cancer journey seem to fade.
Cancer brought both complexity and clarity to my life. It trimmed away the fat from my previous definition of priorities.
The healing process from my battle with cancer has been a lengthy one. I was fortunate that the physical healing took only about a year. The emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects, however, have taken much longer. In fact, they’re probably still taking place to some degree, at least in the sense of trying to understand how my “dance with the cance” fully affected me.
In some regards I had to confront cancer by myself. A lot of it was an internal mental ordeal and, as much as loved ones tried to help, it was not their bloodstream being ravaged by leukemia cells, nor were they participating in a wrestling match with their own mortality. The chemo wasn’t making them nauseous or causing their hair to fall out
(though two good friends did shave their heads in solidarity).
But at the same time, I was not alone – far from it, in fact. I’ve probably never felt less alone than when I was fighting cancer. My girlfriend (who is now my wife), family, friends, coworkers, employers, former teachers, and classmates – not to mention the vigilant UCLA medical team – all surrounded me with support and encouragement. I discovered a great deal of strength from deep within – some of which I didn’t yet know I possessed – but I also pulled an equal if not greater amount of strength from those around me. I can’t imagine how much harder the journey could have been without this support system. The majority of the time, I felt we were all in this together.
Healing together is cathartic. I’ve witnessed this at events when survivors and caregivers tell their stories. There is healing power in giving voice to the pain, especially amongst those who can relate. People sometimes ask if I’m comfortable talking about my cancer experience. I imagine they are wondering if perhaps it is too painful or private, but I enjoy telling my story. It’s a continuation of my healing and also a reminder of where I’ve been and what I’ve been through, which gives me additional strength and fuel for where I’d like to go.
In Vitro We Trust
Leukemia is indiscriminate, unforgiving, and treacherous. In short, it’s one nasty beast. The lifesaving treatments I had, including high-dose chemo and total body radiation, were not much kinder. Besides the painful side effects, they left their mark by rendering me sterile. Fortunately, my oncologist strongly recommended that I consider banking sperm before beginning treatment. He even delayed the start of my first round of chemo by a few days so I could do just that. My wife, Thasja (who I was dating at the time), and I will be forever grateful to him, as the idea of banking was not even on our radar. I had just found out that I had cancer. I was not thinking about the possibility of never becoming a father. The idea of missing out on 3 AM diaper changings was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to start fighting back against the leukemia as hard and as quickly as I possibly could.
Fast-forward seven years: I was in remission and feeling good. Thasja and I had gotten married and were now seriously considering thawing a few of the “man-sicles” we had on ice and trying to start a family. It was not a light decision by any means. Beyond the emotional, physical, and financial (ka-ching!) investment in the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, we had to think about how this decision might impact our lives. With diaper changes come life changes. Were we ready for that? Were we prepared to make the required commitment of becoming parents and caring for a child? After much discussion, we came to the answer that I think had been buried within us all along. We just had to dig a little to unearth it. And that answer was, simply, “Yes.” IVF? Bring it on! Months later, Thasja and I welcomed a healthy baby boy.
Are You Dancing Today?
Amidst the avalanche of emails, texts, and bills … the calendar laden with meetings, deadlines, and other responsibilities … the cacophony of traffic jams, parking tickets, and a constant stream of distressing events on the nightly news, it can be a continuous challenge to remember what is truly important in life. What matters. What brings joy. What brings music to the soul. While each person’s list will vary, if you start off with family, friends, health, meaningful work, and fulfilling, creative play, you’re in pretty good shape.
I hope that you will continue to find ways – even small ways – to bring your passions into your daily life. And dance on!
Chris Ayers, an acute myelogenous leukemia survivor, is a character designer and concept artist based in Los Angeles, CA. He has been involved in such film projects as Penguins of Madagascar, Star Trek, and Men in Black II. Chris has had five books published by Design Studio Press in The Daily Zoo series, including The Daily Zoo, Vol. 3: Healing Together, from which this article was adapted.
To learn more about Chris and The Daily Zoo, visit ChrisAyersDesign.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2016.