Stress ManagementSurvivorship

Healing Through the Arts

You don’t need to be an artist to experience the healing power of the arts. Many cancer survivors and caregivers use art as an outlet to help them work through the challenges of cancer treatment.
October 2015 Vol 1 No 5
Susan Yaguda, RN, MSN
Integrative Oncology Coordinator, Atrium Health, Levine Cancer Institute,
Charlotte, NC

Many cancer centers have organized therapeutic art programs. The focus of a therapeutic art program is creating and expressing. What is important is how you are feeling as you are creating, and what the art means to you. Creating provides an opportunity to express your feelings and emotions.

Art can also help us mourn and grieve for things cancer may take away. Art also gives survivors the opportunity to celebrate life and feel empowered to find healing and meaning through the experience of creating something personal and unique. Learn how some patients with cancer have found art helpful in their journey.

Changing The Negative to Positive With Art

Since she was a teenager, Carolyn loved music and began playing the French horn professionally. When Carolyn was diagnosed with cancer, the treatment caused changes that prevented her from playing. Carolyn’s life and passion took an incredible jolt, and she was left trying to make sense of her loss.

She has always loved art, and decided to make something fun out of what was an instrument of torture for her during radiation therapy—her immobilization mask. “I wanted to take the mask and make it a constant reminder to me that I am finished with treatment and never have to wear it again. The mask was very claustrophobic for me, so I wanted to take that feeling and turn it into something fun.”

Carolyn’s mask is now covered with sheet music from pieces she has played throughout her career. Each piece is significant to her, and she has a story behind each section of the mask. When she was asked what she would tell someone who is newly diagnosed with cancer, she said, “Stick with the treatment—you will get through it. I didn’t think I could continue, but my doctor encouraged me, and I am glad I finished and am on this side of it now. I still grieve my French horn. That was my life, but I know that the support I get through the arts program has been a huge help to me.”

Using Art For Nimble Hands

Debbie just finished treatment for her second cancer recurrence. She kept her hands busy to ward off neuropathy (tingling and numbness) from her chemotherapy. One of her doctors told her that if she could knit with her toes, the neuropathy in her feet would also improve!

Debbie has gone through treatment with a positive, take-control attitude. “When I was told I would lose my hair, I woke up early one morning and decided it was going to be on my terms. I took the shears and shaver to my own head and just told my family and friends, here I am!”

Debbie regularly participates in several art classes, including a knitting and crochet circle. She is a gifted knitter, and enjoys sharing with others as a way to give back. She comes to the class for the opportunity for fellowship and as an escape from her day-to-day challenges. Her advice to someone who just received a cancer diagnosis is, “Stay positive, stay busy. Keep a good attitude, and talk about your feelings. Cancer is just part of me, not all of me.”

New Discoveries

Sherrie works as an accountant and didn’t consider herself artistic in any way. When she was receiving treatment for cancer, a patient she met at a yoga class invited her to try the art classes as well. Sherrie said, “The experience was so much more than I expected. I discovered I really enjoy, and am not too bad at, creating! The people are fun, and I feel uplifted when I leave here.”

Sherrie’s new friends say she is much more than “not too bad” at drawing and painting—she discovered an untapped gift and talent, and is now excited about enrolling in some art classes at a local college. “Becoming involved in these classes has provided me with so much support from people who truly understand what I am going through. It has been a bright spot in this journey.”

Sherrie’s advice for someone newly diagnosed with cancer is, “Get involved in all that the community has to offer for support. You may discover something new and wonderful about yourself.”

If your cancer center doesn’t offer art classes on-site, check out community resources for adult classes, as well as your local arts guild. You can always pull out a piece of paper and crayons, enjoy some time to let go of any daily troubles, and lose yourself in the creative process!

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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