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Creativity and Coping

by Monica Armstrong

Wellness image

“He’s Not Out of the Woods Yet”

Picture a visual artist painting her way through life, focused on beauty and meaning and cherishing the peaceful process of creative work. One evening the phone rings, and the word “cancer” drains all the colors away. Bleakness enters as fear blackens her vision of life.

From the moment of that first shocking phone call with the diagnosis of breast cancer, my mind would not give me a break. How many hours, how many nights were trampled by fearful thoughts of the unknown? Too many, especially when time seemed particularly precious.

Anxiety took the lead for a while. I proceeded through the medical system, trusting in the “kindness of strangers.” By the time I finished treatment, I felt lost to my old self and so very tired. My situation cost me my marriage, my home, and for a while, my identity.

However, I still had art. And I had the urge to honor the kindness and strength I had seen and experienced from others throughout this journey. In particular, while going through my daily treatments, I was moved by the head frames of those undergoing head and neck radiation. As they rested on the shelves, they gave me more awareness of the challenges others faced. I was a companion to these individuals’ tribulations as they were a silent witness to mine. Images flooded into my heart of the quiet bravery of so many people I had met along the way.

Author of Article photo

Monica Armstrong

Finished at last with treatment, I struggled with change and looming depression. One day I went back into my studio and began drawing for the first time in a long while. Not feeling up to anything ambitious, I dug out a little set of colored pencils and began to doodle. “Just for fun,” I assured myself.

In the blink of an eye, an hour passed without one second of fear or anxiety. My spirits were refreshed from that single attempt. I sought every opportunity from then on to get up and move past feelings of exhaustion, fear, and worry. I began to draw on my experiences with other survivors and medical professionals to create something of beauty. To capture the intangibles of kindness, courage, and generosity was my new creative challenge.

Filling up my mind with this intention caused the tide of negativity to begin to recede. Feelings of appreciation at what I had been given began to replace the anger and sadness about what I had lost.

Wellness image

“We Witness I”

Each day before doing artwork, I read a selection of poetry or short inspirational essays to help me cross the bridge from mind to heart. Setting the mood with uplifting, meditative music while drawing, I sat in a comfy recliner with a lap desk. I asked no more of my artistic attempt than the simple pleasure of freedom of expression and the joy of lovely colors. It was important to keep professional judgment at bay during this time, allowing no stress into the experience.

Sometimes even little drawings seemed too much to do on a difficult day. On those days my bedroom rocking chair, a stack of old magazines, and scissors sufficed. It was both relaxing and absorbing to cut out pictures. With this stack of evocative images, I began small collages. Pasting pictures on cardboards, each with different themes, I was able to better cope with the fluctuating moods so common to recovery. This gave me a way to express unspoken thoughts and feelings.

One theme was “places to go and things to do.” One was a record of good memories and wonderful people in my life. Another collage pictured new health habits and positive affirmations to help me grow. I gained insight about my options and willingness to do what I could to survive.

Doing these small creative projects helped me regain my footing. They enabled me to get up the courage and energy to go to a cancer support community, where I received tremendous help and information.

Now a five-year survivor, I have the chance to encourage others to tap into the restorative pleasures of art at the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia. As an artist, teacher, and survivor, I can testify that healing and happiness thrive when people use their inner and (perhaps untapped) creative resources.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Monica Armstrong specializes in fine arts, education, and spiritual direction. She creates survivor and creativity workshops, exhibits nationally, and creates large scale murals on both coasts. Her newest series, “Coming Through,” can be viewed at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.