Unleash Your Inner Artist to Get Through Chemo

By Susan Amoruso Jara
Reviewed by Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

If you’re going through chemo, picking up a paintbrush may be the last thing on your mind. Instead, your head may be swimming with thoughts like “Why me? Will my life ever get back to normal? Will I be able to cope?” Yet tapping into your creativity through art therapy may be just the ticket to resolving the feelings that may be unsettling at a time when you need to feel calm and confident.

Could art therapy be right for you? Read on to find out.

What is art therapy?
By drawing, painting and using other creative media, you can increase self-awareness and express emotions (both conscious and unconscious) about your illness and treatment and even the meaning of life. This therapy, around since the 1940s, is an integral part of the counseling and support services in many renowned cancer centers, including New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), which has had an art therapy program since 1995.

Offered to those newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment or post-treatment, as well as family members and caregivers, MSKCC holds an open art studio once a week. “It’s a creative and calming environment, and you don’t have to have any art experience; you don’t even need to know how to draw a straight line,” explains Sarah D’Agostino, an art therapist at MSKCC for the past 10 years. “Even a couple strokes of colors can communicate so much.”

Whether you choose pastels, watercolors or a #2 pencil, the goal is to “just get it down on paper—it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece,” says Sarah. Once the work is done, patients are encouraged to think of their artwork as they would a dream: “Talk about it, develop it further, use it as a source of inspiration or simply let it go,” she explains.  

How can art therapy benefit you?
Although limited research exists on chemo-related art therapy, experts tout the following benefits:

  • Increased self-awareness and self-esteem
  • Ability to express fears and emotions difficult to verbalize
  • Enhanced communication skills
  • Reduced stress
  • Greater comfort, freedom and hope

Sarah says she’s seen the transformative effect firsthand: “It’s a magical moment in time when people can remove themselves from the physical pain and stress of cancer and feel connected with their feelings.”

For Marie Farrell, who, in January 2010, at age 33, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and Paget’s disease of the nipple (a rare form of cancer), art therapy has become her saving grace. “I went through cancer almost entirely alone,” says Marie, who has attended MSKCC’s art therapy program for two years. “I go every Tuesday—it’s my church. It’s a sacred space where we can commune, share stories of our lives, listen to music and create something. I don't think I could have gotten through the aftermath of cancer treatment without art therapy.”

Can’t get to an art therapy class?
Try one of these exercises at home, courtesy of MSKCC:

“The Visual Poem”
Art materials: Scissors, a glue-stick, magazines
Aim: To express something about yourself that may be difficult to say with words.
Step one: Flip through a magazine, and find a picture of a person or a face that you like: It should be the type of person you feel you could talk to. Cut it out, and glue it anywhere on the page.
Step two: Think what you would like to tell this person about yourself. Look again through your magazines, and find pictures that may express something about yourself, in a real or metaphorical way.
Step three: Glue these pictures on the same page. This is a collage “about yourself,” even if you don’t know exactly what it’s about.

“From Chaos to Order”
Art materials:
Set of oil pastels, a brush and a set of watercolors or ready-mixed tempera (optional)
Aim: To accept and use feelings of confusion to discover inner clarity.
Step one: Allow yourself to make an image of chaos, using many colors in a short time and covering as much of the page as possible.
Step two: Stop, relax and look at the results. It should look chaotic.
Step three: Look carefully at the details. Find a small portion of your chaos that you like, whether it’s the shapes, the colors or for no reason you can name.
Step four: Copy or enlarge that detail onto another page, using your pastels. Give your new image a title. It was chaos; it has become... what?

Published March 2014

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