Just a couple of months ago, Dr. Jenna Sawdon-Bea stood in front of an auditorium full of Physical Therapy graduates, students, colleagues and friends. Her emotions were high as she gave an inspirational keynote address at the inaugural 2015 Doctor of Physical Therapy commencement. In her own words, she reflected back on fall semester of 2012. It was a time that marked the very first class of students entering Fresno State’s new Doctor of Physical Therapy program, and it was also around the time Sawdon-Bea received life-changing news. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sawdon-Bea with DPT students, Spring 2013

By the time the spring 2013 semester rolled around, Sawdon-Bea was already two rounds into her chemotherapy regime. Although the treatments left her physically weak at times, being in the classroom teaching and doing what she loves always offered her moments of strength.

“Continuing to teach during treatment was likely one of the best things I did,” says Sawdon-Bea, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy. “Interacting with my students and peers allowed me time to focus on something besides cancer!”

Sawdon-Bea and Art of Life Volunteer Executive Director, Jenelle Higton/ Photo Credit: Art of Life

Today, she is healthy and thriving and has turned her cancer experience into one of hope as the president of the Art of Life Cancer Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Fresno. Sawdon-Bea credits this Foundation as a fundamental catalyst to her own healing process while going through cancer treatments. In 2013, she participated in the Art of Life Canvas Program, along with her three young daughters, who were 4, 7 and 8 at the time.

“Verbal communication about cancer with kids can sometimes be tricky, especially when they are watching their mom lose her hair, take multiple naps on the sofa, and recover from surgeries,” says Sawdon-Bea. “So being able to watch my girls creatively express what cancer meant to them on a canvas, was amazingly healing.”

The vision of Art of Life is that everyone touched by cancer will discover the “art of life” through creative expression. To make this happen, the Foundation provides healing arts programs that pair cancer survivors with local artists in order to co-create unique pieces of art about life, hope and survivorship.

“Our Foundation focuses on celebrating life, living life and moving forward,” says Sawdon-Bea, who became president in January 2014. “We fully recognize that cancer affects more than just the individual going through treatment – their family members are affected, colleagues, friends, neighbors, etc.”

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Sawdon-Bea and her three daughters creating through art.

In recent months, it was announced that the City of Fresno would donate three acres of land at Fresno’s Woodward Park to break ground on The Healing Garden – a project spearheaded by the Art of Life Foundation. The Garden will provide an opportunity for cancer survivors and families affected by cancer to partner with local landscapers and artists to reflect their own cancer experience on a 3-acre “canvas”.

The Foundation hopes this creates a space of sanctuary, celebration and healing for the Fresno community. The Garden, free to the public, is expected to open in September.

In the meantime, Sawdon-Bea continues to serve as a beacon of light to those around her, including here on the Fresno State campus.

“Jenna is one of the most inspirational people I know,” says Dr. Peggy Trueblood, chair in the Department of Physical Therapy. “It was as if she became empowered to prove that she could not only survive, but inspire the world by doing so! Her resilience, strength, dedication to her family, and upbeat attitude throughout everything has been simply amazing. She is a role model for all. Jenna celebrates life every day and we celebrate with her!”

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The Sawdon-Bea family in 2013. Click below to view more photos.


To learn more about how you can be a part of the Healing Garden and the Art of Life Foundation, please click here. Sawdon-Bea recently appeared on ABC30 Action News to talk about The Healing Garden. View that segment at ABC30.com.