Paintings of Hope

Art Captures the Experiences of Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer

Stories@Gilead - January 11, 2024 - 4 min read

For the past 30 years, Pilar Fernandez has navigated living with metastatic breast cancer. And while she’s faced a series of related health challenges, it hasn’t slowed her down. 

Instead, Pilar’s experience and desire to help others motivated her to co-found the Metastatic Breast Cancer Association (AECMM) in her home country of Spain. With 2,000 members from a dozen different countries, the organization seeks to empower people with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis and help them share their stories.

It was through this work that Pilar and AECMM were pitched an innovative idea: to use artificial intelligence to share the experiences of women living with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (mTNBC).

Using AI to Raise mTNBC Awareness
The first iteration of this partnership was christened Paintings of Hope. Through a collaboration with Gilead, the AECMM found three women through their network to share oral accounts of living with mTNBC. Those interviews were converted into sound waves, and an AI robot used the sound files to create nine unique paintings that depict the emotional weight of living with this diagnosis.

“We were very surprised from the beginning to see the paintings made with AI, and how they captured three situations: the diagnosis, with dark colors, the acceptance and the future,” Pilar says. “It is a very innovative way to give visibility to the disease.”

The three women who participated were awed by the outcome. “It was a mixture of amazement at how accurate artificial intelligence could be, and excitement at seeing the art created from their story,” explains Pilar. “We had never seen anything like it – nothing that transforms the emotions of the patients onto a painting."

The project’s avant-garde concept was recognized with numerous honors, including a Clio Award, and was empowering for those who participated. “It’s their own story that they are sharing with us,” Pilar says.

From Paintings to Portraits: Personalizing Stories of Hope
Paintings of Hope, which included the images and information on the women’s experiences, were displayed in hospitals around Spain and are estimated to have been seen by more than 50,000 healthcare professionals. The work was also shown to government officials when it was displayed in the entrance to the Spanish Parliament in late 2022. After its success, Gilead and AECMM teamed up for one more project, which was launched late last fall. Portraits of Hope takes an even more personal approach, with the AI machines set aside in favor of several well-known Spanish artists.

The goal was to feature the same three women from Paintings of Hope in Portraits of Hope. But in the months between projects, one of the women — a woman from Málaga named Angela — passed away. This was hard for Pilar. “Angela's story is unique because her son is autistic and the responsibility of caring for him made her struggle with her situation,” she says. “So soon after her death, once we started to think about the second phase of the project, we contacted her husband to see if he would like to take her place, so that we continue to feel Angela's presence.” He picked up the rest of the story, sitting in for her in the second series.

This time, the process was different. While the AI machines had simply processed the data from interviews into art, the artists themselves bring their reactions into these new pieces. As the women told their stories, the artists wore a device around their chests that allowed them to hear their subjects’ heartbeats. The resulting works of art are now being exhibited in different hospitals across Spain.

Both projects are part of Gilead’s efforts to spotlight the voices of people living with cancer. As for Pilar, she hopes the art shows will help raise awareness about mTNBC and the need for early diagnostics and more research. It’s a personal journey for her; in the years since she and four other people founded AECMM, she’s the last one still living.

It’s in the other women’s memory, she says, that she continues this work.

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