The Body as Battlefield

Dale Phelps turned his bout with cancer into woodblock prints

Rad The Magic Dragon Image

Rad the Magic Dragon: “Rad represents the X-ray therapy as it attacks and kills the cancer cells,” wrote Phelps. “I thought of this image while undergoing therapy to add some mind/body therapy to the irradiation treatment.”

Courtesy of Dianne Phelps

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We often hear and speak of people “fighting” cancer, but what does the combat look like? In Dale Phelps’ woodblock prints, it’s often very literal and specific: Armies of white cells surge against cancerous invaders; “nurse-angels” and dragons blast these foes with radiation; masons fix damaged bones with bricks and mortar.  

When Phelps, a retired orthopedic surgeon, went up against prostate cancer, he practiced meditation using guided imagery, visualizing his body’s defenses. He turned these images into tangible art in the form of woodblock prints, reports CR (Spring-Summer 2010), the magazine of the American Association for Cancer Research.  

In one particularly graphic scene, a knight bashes a cancer cell over the head with a studded maul—and it’s easy to see how envisioning this righteous act could boost a person’s morale and perhaps his immune system, too. But not all of Phelps’ prints draw from war imagery, as apt as the metaphor is. He also created more nuanced portraits of his “spiritual advisers” in meditation—Albert Einstein, Confucius, and the Buddha.

Even valiant warriors and ferocious radioactive dragons eventually lose a battle, as did Phelps: He died from his cancer in 2009.

See more prints by Phelps in the image gallery.