Coping through creative expression


Shelley Nolden

Fear can be one of cancer's most debilitating side effects. Sparing no patient, survivor or caregiver, it is also the most common. Medical professionals, faith and loved ones can help you manage anxiety. So can a colored pencil, bottle of glue or keyboard. Art therapy provides a mechanism for working through difficult emotions and reducing stress. Regardless of how well you can draw a stick figure or write a haiku, creative expression can bring you comfort.Many young adult survivors have turned to art to restore their sense of optimism and passion for life. Chris Ayers, an artist working in Hollywood, began a project he calls, "The Daily Zoo" on the one-year anniversary of his acute myelogenous leukemia diagnosis at age 29. As part of his recovery process from a bone marrow transplant, he set the goal of drawing an animal a day for one year. The result: a published anthology of rhino plumbers, alien possums and much more called, The Daily Zoo: Keeping the Doctor at Bay with a Drawing a Day, which was followed by Volume II--a second year's installment of drawings. Will Reiser, screenwriter of 50/50, is another high-profile example of a young adult cancer survivor who used comedy to come to terms with his traumatic experience, as well as to move forward.Creative expression as a healing mechanism does not require talent. The only prerequisite is the willingness to face your fears. There are many paths for exploring the complicated mess of emotions that cancer causes. Cancer blogs have become a common means of therapeutic expression, with readers able to offer encouragement via the comments function. YouTube and other video-sharing services provide another medium for expressing oneself.Transformative writing is a powerful strategy, which I've been practicing since my diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia in April 2011. My blog is entitled, "Shelley's 'Life's a Beach' Blog." The Our Story page concludes with the thought: "As I wrote in my first post, life can be a b*tch, but we must always remember what a beautiful beach it is too." The first drafts of many of my entries were much darker than the final posts. By reworking my thoughts into a version that wouldn't terrify my family and friends, I lessened my own fear. Iterative writing can transform the worst of thoughts: "I'm going to die," into "I might die," into "I will survive." Although blogs and video logs offer easy ways to share your efforts, the creation--not the publication--is the essence of therapeutic art. Social media, with all the benefits it provides to the cancer community through connecting people and informing, happens at a speed that may be too fast for inner reflection. There may be points in your healing process when you need to slow down and focus inward in order to develop ways to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Chris Ayers draws his animals with paper and pencil as his only companions. Will Reiser sat alone in front of a screen, drafting his script, long before the cast was hired.Although cancer can make us physically weak, we are still a subset of a generation filled with energy and hope, a generation that wishes to leave its mark on the world through creative expression. You can be part of that movement, regardless of age.For those attending the OMG! Cancer Summit, the workshop, "Pen to ePaper: Self Expression in a Digital World" can jumpstart or boost your artistic efforts. Existing cancer blogs can be a source of inspiration, as well as provide a way to connect with others who share your circumstances. Additionally, below are a few "old school" exercises to try:• Collage – Magazines can be a breezy, low-brain requirement for passing time during a hospital stay or chemo treatment. Tear out the images that speak to you and assemble them on a page. What does the resulting collection tell you about yourself?• Smiley (or not-so-smiley) Faces – Draw five circles on a sheet of paper. Fill in the facial features throughout the span of a day or week, when you're in different moods. Try to be metaphorical: If you're grumpy, turn the circle into a bear or a man with a stick up his... Allow yourself to laugh at the results.• Playing Dr. Dre – Combine lyrics from five songs to fit how you feel. • Dear Cancer – I Had Cancer has a great page entitled "Dear Cancer." Users post their messages to cancer. Write a letter to cancer, and don't hold back.Regardless of how you chose to express yourself, do so with abandon. Cancer doesn't restrain itself. Why hold back when coping with it? Shelley Nolden is a mother, a wife, an investor relations professional and a writer. Shelley is currently in remission for acute promyelocytic leukemia (AML, subtype M-3) and receiving treatments to maintain that status. Like the rest of the cancer club, Shelley is trying to adjust to her new reality while keeping a positive mindset. Read more at

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