Patients and survivors learn to reconnect with their mind and body through dance/movement therapy.
The phrase “Treat the whole person” comes up often in cancer care. It refers to addressing not only medical needs, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but also psychosocial and emotional needs associated with cancer, its treatment and life after the disease.
Integrative medicine, which focuses not only on the body but also on mind and spirit, has grown in popularity in recent years. This “whole person” treatment combines medical and complementary therapies such as yoga, massage, nutrition and exercise to help patients and survivors cope with symptoms and side effects.
Now a mind-body option is making breakthroughs at two major cancer centers. “Dance/movement therapy is based on unifying all of yourself to be able to work with your body to help inform you about what’s going on and to be able to use dance in a way that is expressive and relieving but really (allows you) to do the things that you want to do in life,” says Anne Krantz, Ph.D., who has been a dance/movement therapist for more than 40 years. She was trained by Blanche Evan, an early pioneer of the technique, and later earned her doctorate in clinical psychology.
Dance/movement therapy is used at some cancer centers to help patients during and after treatment.
A DANCE CLASS LIKE NO OTHER
In the early 1990s, Krantz started the Healing Through Dance program for adult patients and survivors at the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Drawn to the cancer community after learning that her child had a benign tumor that would likely grow, she became aware of how she could help others through her skills as a therapist.
Dance/movement therapy improves health and well-being by integrating the emotional, social, cognitive and physical aspects of an individual, according to the American Dance Therapy Association.
The psychotherapeutic practice, which emerged in the 1940s, is based on four premises: Movement is a language; mind, body and spirit are interconnected; movement can be functional, communicative, developmental and expressive; and movement provides a way to both assess conditions and help treat patients.
Krantz has witnessed mind-body transformations in program participants, whether they attended for a few weeks or years. She remembers a patient undergoing treatment who began a conversation with a 15-year survivor. “There is a supportive aspect of one person being able to say to another: ‘That pain will go away. That discomfort is healing discomfort,’” she says. Working with pain involves reducing fear of movement through a dance-style approach that boosts confidence, encourages expression and involves affected areas in a healthy way, she adds.
Krantz’s weekly sessions run an hour and a half. She often starts with a theme that allows participants to be creative in their own movement. Unlike traditional dance, such as ballet, tap and jazz, dance/movement therapy involves no routines to mimic. “Everybody’s body is different,” Krantz says. “(Individuals) are using their own sensation and initiative and, in a lot of ways, their own capacities, possibilities and limits to get at the kind of movement that is the right thing for them (then and there).” Using imagination and expressive improvisation leads to an outlet of feelings and experiences that promote healing, she says. Functional exercises address needs for rehabilitation, reconditioning and awareness of body movement.
Research is limited, but some study results show that, for people affected by cancer, dance/movement therapy provides benefits related to body image, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress, physical pain and mobility and flexibility. A German study examined the therapy’s effects in 115 people in an inpatient oncological rehabilitation program. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires measuring quality of life, anxiety and depression and self-concept. Answers to a follow-up questionnaire completed at the end of the intervention revealed significant improvements in quality of life and psychological well-being.
Another study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management
found that, among 139 Chinese women with breast cancer, short-term dance/movement therapy countered anticipated worsening of stress and pain during radiotherapy. “Their body is no longer an enemy — it’s an ally,” Krantz says. “Part of healing is reconnecting with the areas that have been affected by surgery and loss.”
HEALING THE WHOLE BODY
For pediatric and young adult patients and survivors, dance/ movement therapy can play a role in their development and hospital experience, says Jenn Whitley, M.S., a dance/movement therapist at the Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center in New York City.
Following her passion for dance, Whitley moved to New York City in the early 2000s and became involved with The Andréa Rizzo Foundation. The nonprofit organization raises funding for Dréa’s Dream — dance/movement therapy programs for infants, children and young adults in hospitals, special education classrooms and medical settings throughout the country, including MSK. Whitley felt it was her calling, she says, and earned her degree in 2012, landing a job at MSK soon after.
“We operate from this body, mind and emotion perspective,” Whitley says. “Our goal is to help someone really get connected to how each part of their experience is affecting their whole self rather than just one part, such as the physical piece. Their illness is (affecting) not only their body but also how they are thinking and feeling. Dance/movement therapy provides (an) opportunity for the patients to express and embody these experiences on all levels.”
This holds especially true for children, Whitley says. Her work with babies, children and young adults involves using colorful props, music and relating to each patient on their level. “This is such a profound moment in their life, because they develop and learn through their bodies, movement, (and) their sensory experiences and their senses,” she says. “Whenever you put them into this medical setting where their body is consistently being poked and prodded and they’re not able to just go and run and play — be a ‘normal child’ — their sense of who they are and their development might shift. We want to help provide them (the) opportunity to stay connected to the child in them, the part of them that keeps moving and keeps fighting.”
The therapy also helps parents by teaching them how to help their child cope with pain, such as breathing techniques and rhythmic movements like swaying or rocking that can calm and soothe, Whitley adds.
MSK also offers Barre Fusion for adult patients, survivors and caregivers, including those who are not patients there. The class builds on today’s popular ballet barre exercises, incorporating cancer-focused psychosocial discussions and body-awareness approaches. Movement Happy Hour, a weekly, hourlong group session, is popular among caregivers and patients who have just completed surgery, Whitley says. “I think that it helps them reconnect to their body and understand what their body image is now. (The class uses) an embodied meditation in addition to focusing on body strengthening, flexibility and expression through movement,” she says. “In class, they can begin to reclaim who they are in their body.”
One particularly memorable case — a career high point for Whitley — involves a young man (all identifying factors have been removed) who was battling sarcoma, a cancer of the bones and soft tissues that had affected his leg. The patient struggled with the idea that walking would be a challenge. “There was so much anger and frustration around his leg that it was almost debilitating for him,” she says. “I helped him process these feelings about the part (of him) that was failing him in a way. He moved and talked through his feelings. It was so powerful for him to connect to it and process it, so he could accept it and move into more love for his body.”
Both Krantz and Whitley note that the therapy produces sense of connection — patients experience not just personal fulfillment but also a feeling of community. “They cannot only stay connected to the community that’s here but they can also offer advice, comfort and support for people going through experiences early on in their process,” Whitley says. “And that may be a way for them to continue to heal.”