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A new lease on life: Cancer survivor and artist is intent on making life a bit more colorful

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Posted at 6:24 AM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 06:24:55-05

CLEVELAND — Seventy-seven-year-old Mark Krieger is an artist.

“My strong suit is seeing the possibilities and then them beginning to evolve,” he said.

He specializes in abstract paintings and charcoal portraits.

“I was always drawing. I was always painting. I was always working,” he said.

The former University School art teacher takes his time with each piece and spends hours creating in his Ohio City studio.

His portraits are of children from the U.S.-Mexico border and Honduras.

“The thing that struck me when I met them in real life is that they’re full of humanity. No one ever got that about needy people,” he said. “The portraits were designed in my mind to just introduce them as people, anything that keeps these kids from being objectified in such a way.”

But in 2020 his life turned upside down and his work had to be put on pause.

“I began, at the beginning of that year, feeling a pain when I would sit,” he said. “I was losing weight. I was feeling tired. People were telling me I wasn’t looking good and this pain would bother me in certain positions. I found that I had to eat in certain ways to eat, I had to sleep in certain ways to sleep.”

After several Telehealth visits, his doctor decided it was time to get a scan. The scan revealed a cantaloupe-sized tumor in his abdomen.

“We thought it was kidney cancer,” he said. “Things went really quickly after that.”

Within just days, Krieger was in extensive surgery with doctors from University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center to remove the mass.

“We thought that potentially we needed to be prepared that this could be something other than kidney cancer just on the kidney, and that's what it turned out to be,” said UH urologist Dr. Adam Calaway.

It turned out to be liposarcoma, a rare and malignant tumor of the soft tissue.

Calaway said they, not only, had to remove the mass, but everything the tumor touched.

“We removed his kidney, part of his right colon, his adrenal gland, which is a hormone-secreting gland above the kidney, and his gallbladder,” he said. “It’s an aggressive disease but his prognosis, for now, is great.”

The surgery was successful and he required no additional therapy, but the road to recovery was long.

“There was a sense of ‘if it’s not worth doing really well, don’t do it,’ and that’s the same with the paintings,” said Krieger.

Day by day, he pushed himself to feel more like himself.

“Everything I do, I want to do it right. There’s definitely a before and an after,” he said.

Now, nearly a year and a half since surgery, he’s back in the studio.

“I gotta say the three portraits I did on the wall were finished after I was sick and there’s an intensity there,” he said. “Anybody who is listening to this who has been sick knows what I’m talking about, it focuses you.”

He’s focused on completing his life’s work and living a bit more life while he does it.

“You want to live your life, for the time you have, for what you have and also for the people around you.”

Calaway said his willingness to share his cancer journey is powerful.

“His desire to try and help others now, he feels very empowered,” said Calaway. “He's trying to become more of an outspoken advocate, especially for men, which we don't like to talk to anybody about what we're going through. I think he's hoping to change that. I think he will.”

As powerful as the portraits and works of art he continues to create, showing that despite hardships, it’s important to make life a little brighter, a little kinder and to keep moving forward.

“The portraits in my mind were designed to just introduce them as people,” said Krieger. “We’re all in the same boat here. If there’s a secret to making sense out of life it’s realizing that.”