Coping With Emotions

Expressive Arts Therapy for Cancer Patients

Writing is just one type of expressive arts therapy that can help you cope with cancer. Find out about the benefits of these activities and opportunities at UVA.

If you or a loved one is battling cancer, you already know how emotionally and physically exhausting the experience is. It’s completely normal to feel depressed, anxious or fearful as you learn about your condition and treatment plan.

Dealing with these troubling emotions can help your well-being tremendously. Expressive arts therapy helps many people with cancer process their emotions and come to a better understanding and acceptance of their situation. Both children and adults use this type of treatment to help nurture personal growth and healing.

Types of Expressive Arts Therapies

Expressive arts therapy combines elements of the creative process and psychology to help people experience healing and emotional growth. This therapy isn’t just for people living with cancer, either. Individuals dealing with many different medical conditions, trauma and emotional difficulties benefit from art therapy.

Choosing activities in which you have a personal interest keeps you more engaged and more likely to continue the activity in the future. There are many types of creative outlets to choose from, including:

  • Writing
  • Photography
  • Painting
  • Playing music
  • Dancing
  • Acting or theater production

The Healing Power of Words

For one man, expressive arts therapy was essential to processing his grief. When his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer, Seymour Berger turned to poetry to help him deal with her diagnosis and eventual death. His poem, “Cancer”, is already displayed in cancer centers countrywide, with the hope that more centers will display his work as inspiration for others.

Therapy helps you build up resiliency in the face of difficulty by giving you a tool for dealing with your emotions. Many people living with cancer feel as though their or their loved one’s diagnosis takes over their life, and their own feelings are lost in the diagnostic and treatment process. Finding an outlet through art is incredibly empowering and helps you regain a sense of grounding during your cancer experience.

Women’s Writing Workshops Help Heal

Expressing your feelings creatively can be both a solitary and collaborative experience. “For many women living with cancer, creative writing and journaling offers an opportunity to identify and deal with unexplored thoughts and feelings,” says Charlotte Matthews, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at UVA. “These feelings may or may not be related to their cancer. It helps women say ‘Hey, this is how I really feel.'”

Charlotte would know — writing helped her through her own experience with stage 3 breast cancer. She emphasizes that writing helps women recognize who they are, while giving them power to take back some control over their lives. It helps them find their voice in the midst of a chaotic time.

In 2016, Charlotte and a friend, Betsy Cox, realized the potential writing has in helping women deal with each stage of their cancer journey. The pair formed Whistle Words, which connects women living with cancer to writing workshops where they express their innermost thoughts and feelings. Workshops are open to any woman who has cancer or to women taking care of loved ones with cancer.

To reach as many women as possible, Whistle Words writing workshops are open both online and in person. In partnership with UVA Cancer Center, a free, six-week workshop is running each Friday from February 2 until March 9. The workshop consists of various activities to help women connect with their inner creative selves.

While living with cancer isn’t easy, expressive arts therapy can help you rediscover your feelings and reconnect with yourself. Any type of art helps boost your personal power as you move through your cancer journey.

Cancer is a challenging and emotional journey. Remember you have support resources available to you through the UVA Cancer Center.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN