The Art of Coping with Cancer
Art Therapy Can Help You Process Your Emotions and Find Inner Healing
by Lacy Mucklow, MA, ATR-BC, LPAT, LCPAT, ATCS
What do you know about art therapy? Though art therapy is a lesser-known field, it is a growing form of psychotherapy. It is defined by the American Art Therapy Association as “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”
Studies have shown that art therapy has many benefits for cancer survivors, especially those currently undergoing cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Art therapy can help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue, pain, and distress in people diagnosed with cancer.
Across the ages, the process of creating art has been recognized as being emotionally healing. It allows people to visually express their innermost being and can bring about calm, insight, and understanding. For many people, expressing themselves through art is easier than communicating with words. Art allows cancer survivors to focus on something other than their disease, helping them to process what is going on internally and then expressing it through their artwork.
Here are some creative ways you can use art to help you cope with cancer:
- Coloring As a creator of adult coloring books, I have received several testimonials from cancer survivors who have said that coloring during their chemo treatments helped them relax. When you color, it allows your brain to focus on something creative. Plus, the repetitive action of coloring can be meditative and soothing. Other benefits of coloring include improved mood, reduced stress, and boosted creativity.
- Mandalas Mandala is the Sanskrit word for “sacred circle.” Mandalas have been used in cultures around the world for centuries. Creating artwork using a circular guideline has meditative properties. Studies have shown that creating mandalas reduces stress and anxiety, and increases focus and concentration.
- Zentangle® The Zentangle Method (zentangle.com) is an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns, called tangles. Zentangle is thought to be a meditative method of art. Some cancer survivors have found that Zentangle helps them feel less anxious and more calm.
- Collage For those who don’t feel particularly confident drawing, painting, or sculpting, collaging is a wonderful way to express yourself. To get started, simply grab some magazines, catalogs, or any other paper product containing words and images that you have around the house. Then, tear or cut out images and words that capture how you are feeling. Lastly, glue them onto paper in any arrangement that speaks to you. You can even augment your collage with your own writing or drawing. Finding images and words for your collage and reflecting on what they mean to you can help you process your emotions, discover things you didn’t know about yourself, and even communicate to others things that may be difficult to verbalize.
If you are interested in learning more about how art therapy can help you cope with cancer, ask your healthcare provider to refer you to art therapy services in your area or online. Art therapists work in treatment centers with cancer survivors and their families, as well as in groups for people who are recently diagnosed with cancer, currently undergoing treatment, or who have entered survivorship.
If a professional art therapist isn’t available in your area, pursuing art on your own can still provide some therapeutic benefits. Any of the techniques listed above are a fantastic way to get started.
Lacy Mucklow is a licensed, board-certified art therapist who has been practicing in the Washington, DC, area since 1999. She has published seven books and has released one relaxation album, with a second album currently in production. She is also a thyroid cancer survivor.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2021.