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Art Therapy Helps Breast Cancer Patients Cope

Art therapy provides a creative outlet for many breast cancer patients and helps them cope with stress.
PUBLISHED September 26, 2016
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Art therapy provides a creative outlet for women with breast cancer and aids in reducing stress. Many hospitals now provide art therapy through cancer wellness centers. A trained art therapist administers art therapy sessions and a variety of art materials are made available to the people with breast cancer. The goal of the art therapy sessions is to give support, restore body image and reduce stress by giving patients sufficient time and space to reflect and express themselves. By providing a creative outlet, art therapy also allows women to learn the art of mindfulness.

The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as, "a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness and achieve insight.”

They also say, “Art therapy is an effective treatment for people experiencing developmental, medical, educational and social or psychological impairment. Individuals who benefit from art therapy include those who have survived trauma resulting from combat, abuse and natural disaster; persons with adverse physical health conditions such as cancer, traumatic brain injury and other health disability; and persons with autism, dementia, depression and other disorders.”

A cancer diagnosis can cause a plethora of emotional turmoil in many people’s lives. Fears of pain, dying, financial distress, social changes and dependence can affect a woman’s cognitive, emotional and social functioning. The devastation and physical disabilities from breast cancer treatment like hair loss, losing a breast and weight problems can cause women to feel alienated from their own bodies. Women with breast cancer may often feel lonely and isolated. They may spend excessive amounts of time worrying, and begin to isolate themselves from loved ones. All of these feelings can lead to an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety. Some women find it difficult to cope with all the changes a diagnosis of breast cancer brings.

Creative art therapy seems to provoke brain changes linked with decreased stress in women with breast cancer, according to a study published in the journal Stress and Health, “This type of expressive art and meditation program has never before been studied for physiological impact and the correlation of that impact to improvements in stress and anxiety,” study researcher Daniel Monti, M.D., the director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, said in a statement. The study included 18 people with breast cancer who received their diagnosis sometime between the three years and six months before the study. None of the participants were in active treatment for their cancer. At the start of the study, they were asked to fill out a checklist of 90 symptoms, and they also underwent fMRI brain imaging as they did a “neutral” task, a stressor task and a meditation task. Some were assigned to take a mindfulness-based art therapy course, while others were assigned to just take an education course, both for eight weeks. The mindfulness based art therapy course included lessons in mindful yoga, mindful breathing, emotional awareness, etc., as well as art activities where they were able to express themselves emotionally. After the eight-week period, the study participants filled out the symptom checklist again, and also underwent the brain scans again. Researchers found that the study participants who were assigned to the mindfulness-based art therapy course had actual brain changes linked with stress, reward and emotions. Specifically, they experienced more cerebral blood flow in the left insula, amygdala and hippocampus regions of the brain.The study participants in the mindfulness-based art therapy course also experienced less anxiety and stress, according to their responses to the symptom checklist.

In another study performed in Sweden, a group of 41 women undergoing radiotherapy were randomly chosen. The article states, “Women with breast cancer suffer from considerable stress related to the diagnosis, surgery and medical treatment. It is important to develop strategies to strengthen coping resources among these women. Research in art therapy has shown outcomes such as an increase in self-esteem and cohesion, significant improvement in global health and a decrease in anxiety and depression.” The findings of the study showed, “There was an overall increase in coping resources among women with breast cancer after taking part in the art therapy intervention. Significant differences were seen between the study and control groups in the social domain on the second and third occasions. Significant differences were also observed in the total score on the second occasion. This study shows that individual art therapy provided by a trained art therapist in a clinical setting can give beneficial support to women with primary breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy, as it can improve their coping resources.”

On a personal note, I began art therapy a year after my diagnosis. Classes were offered at my local hospital in the cancer wellness center. The classes were small, with no more than eight women per class. When I first began attending, I was hesitant and fearful. It was a challenge to participate in activities with strangers. I was very concerned with my body image and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. The first few weeks of classes were awkward and I almost decided to quit. Once I began to feel more comfortable with the other women and they began to share their breast cancer stories with me, I was able to look forward to attending classes. After several weeks, I found myself feeling more relaxed. I participated in art therapy sessions that included watercolor painting, mixed media, pottery and beading. As I worked on each project, I found myself focusing on the task at hand instead of focusing on my health issues. It was very freeing to be able to spend an hour or two a week being creative. I enjoyed the guidance the art therapist provided, but she never put boundaries on our creative freedom. I would highly recommend art therapy to anyone seeking help dealing with high levels of stress. Wielding a brush loaded with paint is very empowering and as the project came to life, I could feel my tensions and anxieties melting away.

Resources:

http://www.arttherapy.org/upload/whatisarttherapy.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16889324

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/02/art-mindfulness-stress-relief-breast-cancer-patients_n_2219268.html

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23129559

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