“In addition to providing a relaxing escape against the backdrop of treatment anxiety and fear for the future, creating art may help you understand the myriad of emotions that can go along with a diagnosis of cancer. Emotions that are often difficult to express in words.” - Lynne Eldridge, MD
While personally I have not experienced the emotions and stress associated with a cancer diagnosis, I am no stranger to the difficulty of dealing with overwhelming emotions. As someone living with an anxiety disorder, I needed to find ways to cope. At the point in my life when my anxiety was manifesting, I happened to be a graduate student studying photography. My program of study required me to create a thesis project that combined a body of artwork with a consistent concept.
What started as a graduation requirement turned out to be an opportunity to discover and understand my own emotions. It was my introduction to art as a form of therapy.
I created a fine art series with the intent to use my photography to aid my anxiety. Through the artmaking process I discovered more about myself and about my mind and I gained knowledge and tools to help fight my disorder.
To reap the benefits of art therapy you do not need to be an artist, you don’t even have to like art. The only prerequisite is that you have an open mind, because creating art for healing is different from creating art that may be used in a gallery. The motivation is internal. A 2018 review saw benefits that included a reduction in anxiety, depression, and fatigue in breast cancer patients. An article by Lynne Eldridge, MD notes the benefits found during a study of women creating art while going through radiation therapy,
“Those who participated had improvements in total health, total quality of life, physical health and psychological health. Positive benefits were seen in body image, coping with systemic (whole body) side effects of treatment, and in “future perspectives" or a sense of HOPE.”
Another benefit is establishing a sense of control during a time that many cancer patients feel they have none and are filled with uncertainties. With art you can control the what, the where, the when and the who. You are in complete authority over what medium you want to use (painting, drawing, etc.), where and when you want to create (a quiet corner of your home, perhaps while listening to music), and you also get to decide who sees it. Unlike so much of a cancer journey, with art, you are in control.
Using art as therapy helped me learn about my own emotions and calm my anxieties. Art making can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of self-care and mental health and the best part is that anyone can do it. Go to the dollar store and pick up an adult coloring book, go to an art supply store and pick up some paints, use your phone to create stunning photographs, the possibilities are endless, and HOPE is just a brush stroke or a pencil scribble away.
Interested in learning more about art as therapy? Cactus Cancer Society (formerly Lacuna Loft) helps young adult patients, survivors and caregivers discover support and community. Check out their Art Workshops HERE (https://cactuscancer.org/programs/creative-art-workshops/)