January 25, 2018 | by Michael Easterling
It was on New Year’s Eve 2016 when Joe Bravo’s life took an unexpected turn.
On an occasion usually filled with anticipation and excitement for what lies ahead, Bravo found himself in need of a doctor after discovering an egg-sized lump on the left side of his neck.
“Nothing was open to get an appointment on New Year’s Day, but five days later I was able to get time with my primary care physician,” said Bravo, a retired advertising agency art director and artist who has gained international attention for his “Tortilla Art” and dramatic murals.
“I had a sonogram, CT scan and PET scan and then I received my diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma. Tongue cancer.”
Cancers in the mouth are relatively common, affecting about 200,000 people in the United States each year. For Bravo, it isn’t how he thought his 2017 would begin. His doctor at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, California, referred him to City of Hope for treatment. He became a patient of radiation oncologist Helen Chen, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at City of Hope’s community practice in South Pasadena. Christina Yeon, M.D., was his medical oncologist.
An appointment was made for Bravo to see a dental oncologist before his radiation and chemotherapy treatment could begin. He had to have some teeth pulled to better access the malignancy, and then he received chemotherapy once a week for five hours for seven weeks straight.
He was fitted for and wore a radiation mask, and endured the treatment for 15 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, also for seven weeks. He says it was the most difficult part of his cancer fight. During this time, Bravo had a gastrostomy tube (G-tube) placed into his stomach to provide nutrition and medication since he was unable to swallow. He used large syringes to insert the liquid feeding formula Glucerna directly into his stomach.
“I was surprisingly OK through most of it,” he said. “They caught my cancer early, and I responded well to the chemotherapy. I only lost a little hair under my chin. But the radiation really got me. It worked, it did what it was supposed to do, but it was horrible.”
After completing his course of treatment in April, Bravo was informed that one of the nodules around his thyroid was cancerous. The gland was surgically removed in July, and in his recovery, Bravo had to work with a specialist to learn how to swallow and digest food again, since the surgery and treatment made it difficult to produce saliva.
Though still in physical therapy, Bravo ended 2017 much healthier than he began it. Once heavier, he lost 50 pounds over the course of his treatment, which brought his blood pressure and type 2 diabetes under control. He was the grand marshal of the 73rd Northeast Los Angeles Christmas Parade in December, and he is entering 2018 as vibrant and creative as ever. His cancer experience, he said, has informed how he takes care of himself now, as well as inspiring the creative direction he follows and the time he devotes to his art.
With his creative juices flowing, Bravo decided to incorporate his illness into his art, quite literally. Gauze and bandages he wore as a patient were fashioned into a sling shot, with cancer being the Goliath to his David. The syringes used to keep him nourished while unable to eat or swallow have become a crown surrounding the radiation mask that reminds him of what he has come through.
Bravo has always been drawn to unorthodox media in his art. Born in San Jose, California, he spent much of his childhood in the border town of Calexico. It was there that his art career began: using mud to make figurines, scrap wood to carve into toy swords, and other pieces created from objects he found, since he had very few store-bought toys to play with. “Necessity fuels creativity,” he said.
When the family relocated to Wilmington in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Bravo excelled as an art student at Banning High School. He later graduated from California State University, Northridge, where he was a graphic artist for a Chicano newspaper, El Popo.
In addition to work as an art director over the years, Bravo received commissions to paint murals from the California Art Council and the L.A. Citywide Mural Project. He is perhaps best known for the provocative mural he painted on the Wilmington Recreation Center – “Willhall” as it is popularly known – back in 1976, to protest gang violence. A landmark of the area, Bravo has performed restorations on the 40-year old mural three times: 1996, 2003 and last year after his treatment ended. Some of the youth in the area have even had their bodies tattooed with the image of the mural.
My care at City of Hope was the very best,” he said. “Frankly, I was surprised at the level of care and attention I was getting. It was like having a health valet service. My nurse called me at home to make sure my meds were fine, just to check up on me to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. And Dr. Chen was so great to me. She’s a fun, big personality, and a caring and very skilled doctor.”
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