When Life Gives You Cancer, Make … Emojis?

When Life Gives You Cancer, Make … Emojis? Nina Beaty

When art therapist Nina Beaty was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to art to help her get through. She soon realized she could help uplift fellow cancer survivors by bringing her art into the digital world. Nina created a series of cancer emojis.

by Nina Beaty

It’s really quite amazing that my cancer was found when it was. I had no symptoms and had quit smoking 30 years earlier, so it never occurred to me I could still get cancer. 

In January 2014, I was visiting my mother, a ten-year non-small cell lung cancer survivor at the time. That day, my mother’s radiologist stopped by to check in on her. While we were all chatting, she asked about my smoking history. And, even though I was considered low risk for developing lung cancer, she suggested I get an early detection CT scan because I had been a smoker and I’d spent my childhood living in a New York City apartment with heavy smokers. 

The CT scan showed a mass sitting on top of my left lung. Tests revealed it was small cell lung cancer. It had not yet metastasized, so it was considered treatable. But even if I got treatment, how much time would that give me to live? Small cell has a notoriously cruel prognosis of just six to twelve months from the moment it’s detected. 

Despite what I showed outwardly, the truth was I didn’t feel all that hopeful. I was in despair. I was twice divorced, didn’t have kids of my own, and hadn’t attained that much in my art therapy career. What legacy would I have to leave behind if I were to die so soon? 

My first year of having cancer was rough. I was dealing with it on two levels: 1) the physical aspect of having my body invaded by medical procedures, and 2) the emotional and spiritual struggle of having to “keep up the good fight” when I was feeling worthless. I don’t think I would’ve gotten through it as well as I did if I hadn’t picked up my pen and watercolors to help process the dark thoughts that often intruded upon my mind. I would work through thoughts such as Where will I go when I die? while drawing an image of a bridge going to – well, I wasn’t sure where.

I can’t send a dopey-eyed sunshine blob, a dancing lady, or a lobster to my friends. They have NOTHING to do with my life as a cancer patient.

Nina Beaty’s custom emojis rely on humor and art to help cancer survivors communicate how they are feeling.

Looking over the art I made during that time, I noticed that I actually drew more brightly colored, cartoon-like shapes than images of doom and gloom. I amused myself by making droll illustrations that depicted my life as a cancer patient. Sometimes I’d give these cartoons away as a thank-you to those who’d helped me – doctors, nurses, family, and friends.

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Once, while undergoing a six-hour cancer treatment, I looked down at my cell phone and thought, These emojis are so stupid! I can’t send a dopey-eyed sunshine blob, a dancing lady, or a lobster to my friends. They have NOTHING to do with my life as a cancer patient. I should make some that are RELEVANT.

And that’s how EmPat was born. A year later, when I felt stronger, I put together a team to work with me on creating animated emojis, or GIFs, that cancer survivors could text to friends and family rather than having to talk to each person when they felt too tired, or sick, or grumpy to explain what was happening with them. Texting an EmPat emoji would be a shorthand way of communicating “This is where I am right now,” be it happy, sad, tired, or angry. 

Having studied animation in college, I found it quite easy and fun to create the emojis. I began by making a list of dominant feelings, thoughts, and anxieties that many cancer survivors experience. Then I sketched them using a polar bear character to act out the situations. Next, I decided the bear needed a loyal friend by his side. The bear became Pat, representing the patient, and Pat’s friend was named Em for having the quality of a good friend, empathy. 

I tried to keep the characters approachable but not babyish. I chose Em and Pat to be non-human and genderless so more people might be able to relate to them. 

I’m proud to say the EmPat emojis became the legacy project I was so afraid I’d never get to create. The fun part is I’m able to make the EmPat app a free download on both Apple and Android smartphones. My secret dream is to make a short, animated film starring Em and Pat as they travel down the bumpy cancer road together. 

My one piece of advice for fellow cancer survivors is this. Try to have a generous and loving attitude toward yourself, especially now that life hasn’t turned out quite as you planned. In other words, have a lot of Em for the Pat in you.

As of January, Nina Beaty is a five-year small cell lung cancer survivor. 

EmPat offers an easy, caring way for cancer survivors, family, and friends to share thoughts and send updates. You can learn more about EmPat by visiting EmPatProject.com and following @theEmPatproject on Instagram.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2019.