Coping With Emotions

Trying Art Therapy During Cancer Treatment

Art therapy can be a beneficial and complementary treatment during any part of your cancer timeline. From coping with the initial diagnosis to dealing with treatment side effects, creative activity provides the opportunity for emotional release whether you're a patient or a caregiver.

Art therapy can be a beneficial and complementary treatment during any part of your cancer timeline. From coping with the initial diagnosis to enduring unpleasant treatment side effects, using art mediums allows you some stability and emotional release whether you’re a patient or a caregiver.

What Is It?

This therapy is the use of art media and the creative process to explore your feelings, reduce anxiety and reap other emotional health benefits, according to the American Art Therapy Association. A credentialed art therapist typically facilitates sessions, though other counseling professionals sometimes use interventions in individual or group sessions. You may worry that your artistic skills (or lack thereof) will get in the way of your progress. Creative therapy works well for many, however, because it’s the process that’s important, not necessarily the final product. Sessions include using painting, drawing, sculpting or even coloring as ways to lead discussions or process life situations.

What Can Cancer Patients Gain From It?

You can reap tons of benefits from art therapy, both physical and emotional according to the American Cancer Society. Using art sessions, therapists introduce you to new coping skills, work on your fine motor skills and help you just deal with cancer. Dr. Kim Penberthy, a professor of psychiatry and clinical psychologist at UVA Cancer Treatment Center, has seen the benefits of art interventions firsthand. “Our patients have responded beautifully to adult coloring books, and we are excited to add more project based art interventions going forward,” Dr. Penberthy says. It’s quickly becoming a staple of supportive care for cancer patients around the country.

When it comes to diagnosis, treatment and grief issues, participation in the arts has been shown to be beneficial to patients. In one study published by Psycho-Oncology, patients in art therapy groups weekly demonstrated less fatigue and less depression during chemotherapy. Other studies have shown the benefits of art techniques for breast cancer and pediatric patients and their families. Thus, it gives you another way to process your diagnosis and cope.

It can also help you deal with the various burdens of cancer. “One of our patients who experienced pain while speaking loved being able to express himself through art instead of through his voice. And our patients with anxiety are able to practice mindfulness while working with our coloring books,” says Dr. Penberthy. “This activity is easily adapted to patient experience and personalities, which only increases the benefits.” When you have trouble expressing concerns or anxieties about cancer, you can look to art to say them for you.

How Can You Find an Art Therapist Near You?

Start by asking your care team. If you’re unable to find an art therapist, you can benefit from creativity during recreation therapy, music therapy or even occupational therapy sessions. Even though a therapist may not be in your area, you can still benefit by consciously participating in a creative art process. Attend a painting class, or try to pick up a new skill like sculpting, origami or scrapbooking. Turn on music and draw what it makes you feel, or develop a comic book hero that fights cancer villains. Even simply breaking out colored pencils and an adult coloring book works. You can find relief in the mindfulness of simply living in the moment and concentrating on the task in front of you.

You can use art in your everyday life to gain the rewards of having a healthy creative outlet. If you feel frustrated with your skills or aren’t proud of your end result, don’t give up! Practice makes perfect, and the process is what ultimately helps you during treatment.

Haley Burress
Haley Burress