Coping with Cancer Creatively
by Caroline Peterson, ATR-BC, LPC
For those who have lived it, no words can fully convey what it feels like to receive the diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening illness. That is why many people diagnosed with cancer have turned to art therapy to explore their experience beyond the realm of words. This process often leads to a greater clarity about their own feelings. And understanding your emotions is essential for living well.
Perhaps you may be thinking, “Art therapy? I’m not creative. I can’t draw.” The good news is there is no requirement to draw anything during art therapy; rather there is an invitation to connect with your natural creativity at a time when you may feel disconnected from yourself and from those around you. Jean, a breast cancer survivor who attended an art therapy program with me, describes her participation in the group program as “a vacation from cancer” that allowed her to connect with her feelings, reorganize, and refresh herself in order to cope with the challenges of her illness.
We have all experienced the advantages of creative expression at different points in our lives. We often use creativity to meet practical needs – concocting new recipes, gardening, home decorating, and woodworking, for example. In each, we combine our curious minds and the enjoyment we get from solving problems, finding meaning, and discovering new ways of doing things.
Art therapy provides an invitation to connect with your natural creativity at a time when you may feel disconnected from yourself and from those around you.
A cancer diagnosis presents complex challenges that require you to learn new ways to sustain your family life and personal finances with the added demands of negotiating multiple healthcare providers, making decisions about your care, undergoing treatment, dealing with side effects, and facing a series of tests and retests. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the stress of cancer when you have to adapt to so much so quickly. Creativity offers a unique tool for creating meaning and making sense of your experience. Jean notes, “Art therapy did not require my competence; it was a bridge to my coping more competently with the day-to-day demands of my illness.”
The adaptive learning challenge that cancer presents is particularly intense because our body’s defensive nervous system sounds an alarm. While natural, this fight, flight, or freeze mechanism makes it more difficult to remember what your doctors have said, to embrace the joys of life, and to let go of the cycle of worried or fearful thoughts that may disturb your sleep or interrupt everyday tasks. However, our nervous system has another side, equally important to our survivorship, which helps us rest and repair. Art therapy can enhance this internal balance so that the alarm quiets, allowing you to gain clarity and experience a greater feeling of ease.
The benefits of art therapy emerge from working with art materials to construct images using lines, shapes, colors, and symbols. Through the guidance of a clinically trained art therapist, you receive skilled support to take things apart and put them back together in new ways and to explore and shape your experience. You gain the opportunity to feel the pleasure of your personal creativity, to be imaginative, and to relax into creative problem solving. You can express your feelings outwardly onto the page or in forming clay. You can play them out in a photo collage or a found object sculpture, without any requirement to make something perfect. In this way, art therapy eases distress and encourages physical and emotional balance.
In my experience, cancer survivors find their natural art-making language over a number of sessions and experience the art therapy process as transformational and healing. People with cancer who participate in art therapy often report improvements in cognitive and emotional functioning, greater vitality and physical functioning, and enhanced coping. Increasingly, art therapists are playing an important role in supportive care teams in cancer centers nationally.
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Caroline Peterson is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist with the Supportive Care Team at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital/Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, PA, and is in private practice at Springboard Studio.
Learn more about art therapy and find a clinically trained art therapist in your community through the American Art Therapy Association at ArtTherapy.org.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.