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For Cancer Patients, Art Therapy Is More Than Just Painting Pictures

03/07/2016 01:03PM | 8009 views

Patients coping with cancer, and their caregivers, often experience a complex array of emotions including anxiety, fear, depression, frustration and sadness — feelings that, for some, may be difficult to express in a traditional support group.

Enter art therapy. Specifically, City of Hope’s “Discover Your Inner Artist” held weekly in the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center.

Art therapy is a mental health profession practiced by credentialed art therapists in either an individual or group setting. The benefits of art therapy, particularly for cancer patients and their caregivers, are many. “Patients and their families who participate report reduced stress, anxiety and depression, alleviation of pain and improved overall well-being,” said Linda Klein, Biller Patient and Family Resource Center manager.

“Art therapy is a tool for patients to express their feelings without having to verbalize them,” explained art therapist Kiene Landry, L.M.F.T., A.T.R., who has been conducting weekly art therapy support groups at the center for the past six years. “Instead, they can express their experiences, thoughts and emotions through art.”

“The groups are a safe place where patients can share with others who have gone through similar experiences,” said Joanne Man, operations coordinator, “and an outlet to provide some ‘me time’ for patients’ caregivers to make sure they’re practicing self-care.”

The groups are open to all patients in the community with a diagnosis, as well as their family, caregivers and supporters. Landry has worked with patients from 18 to 70-plus, from all nationalities and cultures. “Even people with limited English can embrace and benefit from art therapy,” Landry said.

Overcoming art anxiety

  And if you’re a patient whose anxiety actually increases at the thought of creating art, there’s good news: You don’t have to have any experience in art-making. “The process of creating the art is what’s important, not so much the end result,” says Landry.

Patients participate in weekly art therapy projects called “directives.” For example, Landry might ask them to draw or paint an image of how they feel that day. A patient who is feeling frustrated might scribble all over the paper.

Other directives Landry uses are slightly more complex. She may ask patients to draw a picture of a problem they are experiencing on one side of a paper, and various ways they might deal  with it on the other. Or, they might create a three-dimensional project: a box with images of how they present themselves to the world on the outside, with images of how they really feel on the inside.

Patients are then invited — although not required — to talk about their work, as Landry coaches them through the therapeutic process. In addition, patients provide each other with feedback and support.

“One patient who was extremely frustrated in her recovery from breast cancer said that before art therapy, she was always trying to avoid her feelings,” said Landry. “She told me she’s much better now at exploring her feelings and working through issues she was afraid to deal with before.”

The process of art therapy can also help patients reframe their experiences from a place of despair to one more meaningful. Klein remembers one directive, in particular, in which a couple — a patient and his caregiver — were asked to create an image of what City of Hope meant to them. “One person drew a beautiful Hawaiian island, and the other drew a sunrise — images of peace and hope — not what one typically associates with a cancer hospital.”

Self-help through art

  Patients and caregivers who live outside the City of Hope community, and throughout the United States, can find a qualified art therapist through the American Art Association’s Art Therapy Locator.

For patients, their caregivers or anyone going through a difficult time who may not have access to credentialed art therapists, incredible benefits can be reaped from simply creating art on their own. “Art can help patients relax and focus, almost as if they’re in a trance, much like meditation,” says Landry. “And that can give them space and relief from the daily pressures they’re coping with.”

3 tips to try art therapy at home

  1. Start an “art journal” as a means of self-expression. Instead of writing about how you feel every day, try drawing a picture.
  2. Create a space. Find a place in your home that feels comforting and relaxing for you to create your art. Try lighting candles or playing music to get your creativity flowing.
  3. Enjoy the process. Remember, the value of this exercise is not in the end result, but in the process itself. Spending even a few minutes each week on your art therapy can help you reduce stress and improve your overall well-being.

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