by Angela Smith
Human beings have been creating art for tens of thousands of years. From early cave drawings, to the masterpieces of the Renaissance period, to the spirit of experimentation of modern times, art has evolved and provided a means of expression, communication and a way to record the human experience. Artists have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of the creative process, while science seeks to understand why this is so. This article will attempt to answer how and why art is beneficial to people who are living with a serious illness such as cancer.
Researchers have studied the effects of the creative arts on common problems linked with cancer including anxiety, depression, pain, fatigue and quality of life. This research suggests that the creative arts improve how people feel about their cancer symptoms and their quality of life. Engaging in the creative arts “is an opportunity for patients to complement the healing process above and beyond the physical,” said Timothy Puetz, PhD, MPH, Presidential Management Fellow, Office of the Director National Institutes of Health. (JAMA Internal Medicine 2013)
In her family practice in Toronto, Dr. Wendy Brown regularly sees patients who are living with the devastating emotional and physical effects of cancer. Dr. Brown shared with us her thoughts on this. “There is more to wellbeing than chemistry. Health is multifactorial. The ability to leave the chaos of treatment and enter the calm of creation contributes to a sense of wellbeing when it is sorely needed.”
The creative process engages the right side of our brain where our imagination lives. In this realm, anything is possible. Just as young children spend much of their time in a playful state, adults too can benefit from tapping into this often under-utilized source of inspiration and insight. “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity”. C.G. Jung
To further understand how the creative arts help people living with cancer, we
spoke with a young woman who discovered the power of the creative process while living with cancer and grieving the loss of her husband. Here is Kelly’s story:
“My life has been touched by cancer in multiple ways. My husband died of a rare cancer over five years ago and just under two years after my husband’s passing, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a young mother and recent widow, I found the stress of grieving, parenting and coping with my own cancer diagnosis and treatments, in addition to the demands of every day life overwhelming!
Writing was the start of my process – keeping track of details, a place to voice my emotions, creating poetry. Then, I reconnected to my love of painting from when I was younger. Once I started to paint, I discovered it became a need, rather than a pass time (hobby). When I started painting, I found that I could not stop! Even as a single parent of a small child, I felt I needed to carve out time to have this mode of self-expression. Painting became a means of expressing what could not be expressed by words: an elixir to release the complicated emotions inside and a salve to the pain I was carrying within.
After I was diagnosed, I discovered art workshops for people living with cancer. This became a relaxing, calming, focused process to really engage in the act of making art and being creative (for creativity’s sake, not to create a masterpiece) and escape the rigors of cancer treatments. It was also a time to connect with other patients through shared experience without dwelling on the challenges of cancer treatments. This led me to delve into creating art and writing to release anything that could be a blockage or a detriment to my health. I believe this was a point of emotional and spiritual transformation which I continued to develop as I proceeded through treatments and into life post cancer treatment.”
Kelly’s story is similar to others who have discovered that engaging in creative activities has helped them cope with the day-to-day stress of illness and loss. Feedback from participants at the Art for Cancer Foundation workshops held in the Toronto area, further explains how the creative process has helped them to cope with the stress of cancer. In their words we learn more about how art has helped them engage with life while living with cancer.
The creative process relieves stress.
“When I focus on art making, everything else disappears, and I don’t think about having cancer. Like meditation and yoga, it focuses my mind away from cancer and leaves me feeling calm and centered.”
Making art provides an outlet for expressing my deepest dreams, hopes, and fears.
“I didn’t realize I had so much that needed to be said, but for which I had no words. Art became my voice. When I am at the art workshops, I spend the time connecting with my inner self without the constant fear and demands that cancer puts on my life. This time is sacred and healing for me”.”
Using my hands to make art is therapeutic.
“So much of what we do today involves technology. Using my hands to create art relaxes my mind and calms my nerves. I shut off the constant chatter in my mind, and relax into creating something beautiful with my hands.”
Art making is playful, fun and teaches new skills.
“I haven’t had so much fun, since I was a child. I laugh, I play and I use my imagination to create art that is totally about me. Creating something from inside of me, opened a whole new part of myself and let me see that anything is possible.”
Creating art with others who are experiencing the same thing that you are, makes you feel supported and less alone.
“I have met new people, made new friends, and learned so much from others who are going through the same thing that I am. I look forward to these creative workshops, and have even changed appointments to make sure that I don’t miss one.”
Creating art gives you a feeling of accomplishment and pride.
“I have always been afraid of making art, but now I don’t worry about what others think of me or the outcome. I just enjoy the process, and have been pleasantly surprised at what I have created. I have actually created art that I am proud of.”
Art records our personal experience and leaves a mark, which says “I was here.”
“I am creating keepsakes for my children and my grandchildren. If I had never had cancer, I probably never would have created art. This is one of the gifts I have discovered on my cancer journey.”
This feedback tells us a lot about why the creative process is helpful to those living with cancer and one can’t help but feel inspired and moved by the positive responses and encouraging words. “At the Art for Cancer Foundation we believe that the creative process can be very beneficial for people living with cancer, their families and caregivers,” says Founder, Cid Palacio.
If you or someone you know is living with cancer, and would like to know more about free creative programs/workshops for people living with cancer, please visit www.artforcancerfoundation.org
Effects of Creative Arts Therapies on Psychological Symptoms and Quality of Life in Patients With Cancer
Creative Expression with Mandalas Heals the Body, Mind and Spirit
Musical Moments for Medical Professionals
Reflections on Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
Inside Childhood Cancer: Excerpts from the book Chronicling Childhood Cancer
Angela Smith is an artist, arts facilitator, writer, and volunteer at the Art for Cancer Foundation.