Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity to educate people about what it means to be a kid with cancer.
Twenty-three years ago I started an art therapy program for pediatric cancer patients and their families at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center.
The patients and families I worked with were my teachers—they showed me what it was like to be a kid with cancer and what I could do to help. The first thing I learned is that kids with cancer are normal kids dealing with extraordinary challenges.
My work has grown into a non-profit organization called Tracy’s Kids (www.tracyskids.org) that provides funding for nine art therapists to work with pediatric cancer patients in four treatment centers. Our mission is to ensure that the children and families we serve are emotionally equipped to fight cancer as actively as possible—and prepared for the time when they are cancer free.
Research shows that childhood cancer survivors generally do very well, but while their adjustment patterns are similar to the general population and they are upbeat about life, their absence from school during cancer treatment often leaves them with challenges in social and academic adjustment (Bessell 2001).
Reflecting on her cancerous tumor, a teenage patient made a clay whistle and named it “Senor Tumor,” a comical, mustachioed personification of her cancerous tumor. Her younger sister made a whistle in the form of “Olaf,” from the movie Frozen, shown in the process of melting away, just as the chemo was melting the tumor.
Their little brother watched his sisters and rolled red play-doh into a ball, added googly eyes and named it “the rock in my sister’s tummy.” As he worked, he asked the art therapist and his sister questions about the “rock,” what her chemo was for, and how she felt. In art therapy, humor and metaphor made a menacing tumor into a funny little “Senor,” a snowman being melted away by chemotherapy, and a “rock” that could be talked about and understood.
Kids with cancer spend a lot of time in clinics and hospitals, but they’d rather be at school or playing with their friends. Both the disease and its treatment sap their energy, suppress their immunity, and isolate them from peers.
Art therapy can be a powerful tool for self-expression and normalization. Though many young patients intuitively try to protect their parents by being “good,” not complaining, and enduring countless needles and tests with a stiff upper lip—working creatively opens the door to symbolic communication. A monster made of clay can’t hurt anybody, but it can give form to a young person’s anger and disappointment at being sidelined by cancer.
Supportive interaction with a trained art therapist helps young patients voice their concerns and find ways to cope with long, boring hours tethered to an IV pole. At the art table kids can let loose and just be kids, make friends, make a mess, and support each other through the ups and downs of treatment. Working creatively in the treatment space transforms young people from passive patients to active partners in the work of getting well (Councill 2012).
Childhood cancers have gone from being rare and almost inevitably fatal, to life-threatening but highly treatable diseases. The Children’s Oncology Group reports that childhood leukemia survival rates increased from 83.7% between 1990-1994 to 90.4% between 2000-2005 (Hunger, et al 2012). Though childhood cancers are rare, in 2007 one in every 1,000 young adults (20-29 years) was a childhood cancer survivor (Shrag, McKeown, Jackson, Cuffe & Neuberg, 2008).
Supporting children with cancer and their families makes a real difference in what it’s like to be a kid with cancer, and helps kids and families move forward after treatment is over.
For more information and examples of artwork by our kids, visit our website www.tracyskids.org and our Facebook Page. I have included a link to our latest music video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W8Spj7R7rY, featuring kids and their families at work and at play.
Bessell, A. G. (2001). Children surviving cancer: Psychosocial adjustment, quality of life, and school experiences. Exceptional Children, 67, 345-359.
Councill, Tracy D. (2012). Medical art therapy with children. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.) Handbook of Art Therapy, 2nd Ed.. New York: Guilford.
Hunger, S. P., Lu, X., Devidas, M. Camitta, B. M., Gaynon, P. S., Winick, N. J. Reaman, G. R., Carroll, W. L. (2012). Improved survival for children and adolescents with acute lymphoblastic leukemia between1990 and 2005: A report from the children’s oncology group. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 30 (14), 1663-1669.
Shrag, N. M., McKeown, R. E., Jackson, K. L., Cuffe, S. P., Neuberg, R. W. (2008).
Stress-related mental disorders in childhood cancer survivors. Pediatric Blood Cancer, 50, 98-103.
Tracy Councill started an art therapy program for patients and families in pediatric hematology-oncology at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1991. That highly successful program evolved into Tracy’s Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing and sustaining art therapy programs for pediatric hematology-oncology patients and their families, currently with programs in four locations.
Ms. Councill earned her MA in Art Therapy from The George Washington University in 1988, having received a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1978. She teaches Medical Art Therapy at the George Washington University. She served as a Director of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) from 2009-2011, and has chaired the AATA Membership Committee. Ms. Councill has published several articles on art therapy, including a chapter on Medical Art Therapy with Children (Ch. 16) in the Handbook of Art Therapy, 2nd ed., edited by Cathy Malchiodi (2011) and a chapter on Cultural Crossroads: Considerations in Medical Art Therapy (Ch. 17) in Using Art Therapy with Diverse Populations (2013), edited by Sangeeta Prasad and Paula Howie.
She continues to show her own paintings and block prints at local venues, is an avid gardener and a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill.