The emotions associated with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment are sometimes too overwhelming to be expressed in words. When there are no words, many breast cancer patients and survivors opt for pictures instead.
Most hospitals and cancer treatment centers now offer art therapy workshops specifically for cancer patients or can provide information about local art therapy groups and licensed art therapists.
Susan Hedlund, director of patient and family services at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute in Portland, is a strong advocate for creative therapies for cancer patients. She said it’s important to remember that no single therapeutic approach will be helpful for every cancer patient, but tapping into creativity can open up additional avenues for dealing with the experience of living with cancer.
“It’s an option for people who express themselves less verbally and also allows them to create things of beauty,” Hedlund said. “It can be almost like a meditation where you don’t have to speak, you don’t have to deal with a lot of things cognitively, but it can be something that keeps your hands busy, distracts you, and keeps you in the moment. . “
Art accesses another part of the brain, Hedlund said, a deeper part where images and metaphors can replace words. Hedlund mentioned a former patient whose chemotherapy drained her energy so much that she couldn’t attend traditional therapy sessions or sometimes speak at all. Drawing has become an essential communication tool.
“Her husband went to get her pastels and notebooks and she just drew and drew and sketched,” Hedlund said. “She drew a dragon with a little blue butterfly sitting on its nose. She said, “I might fight a dragon, but I’m a butterfly and I can fly around its head and drive it crazy.” She was too exhausted to speak but she could lie down on her bed and draw.
Margaret Hartsook is a Certified Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor at Legacy Health Cancer Center in Salmon Creek. She runs art-based therapy groups that are open to anyone with cancer, regardless of where they are receiving cancer treatment.
“My job and what many art therapists do is to facilitate people’s creativity,” Hartsook said. “We raise them and give them the skills to make it accessible to them. We try not to come up with complicated things, things that require this artistic training. “
Hartsook said art therapy groups connect cancer patients to a supportive community at a time when they are most isolated – not only because of COVID-19, but also because their friends and family do not understand what they are going through. Breast cancer patients in particular may struggle with hair or breast loss, resulting in a deeper identity change that can be difficult to treat, she said.
“People with cancer, their stress levels can be very high because of the treatment and the pain and all the things that they go through including the fear of recurrence,” Hartsook said. “They come to the group and know that for an hour they can just ‘download’ and let it go. We help them by reading, guiding them, and then doing art.
Hartsook art therapy groups are currently meeting online because COVID-19 poses too great a risk to immunocompromised patients. She hosts Virtual Community Open Studio, a bi-weekly session focused specifically on anxiety and stress reduction.
It meets on Mondays and Fridays so patients can “start and end their week in this safe place,” Hartsook said.
Despite the virtual format, Hartsook said a strong community has grown among the group members. In many cases, online video meetings are easier for cancer patients because they don’t even have to stand up to join the group.
The course usually starts with a prompt, Hartsook said, and then moves on to artistic creation. Hartsook often uses collage because it is accessible even for those who do not consider themselves artists.
“Last fall we called it ‘comfort pages’. We sent a lot of pictures like beds, blankets, kittens and fireplaces and then we had people choose their own pictures and create a collage, ”Hartsook said. “The important thing to remember is that they feel part of a community and that they have moved away from the daily stresses of their lives. It is less open mindfulness and more simply art.
The benefits aren’t just emotional, Hartsook said. Creativity can also be a pain management tool. Hartsook recognizes that it is different for everyone, but in general, she has observed many patients over the years who report reduced pain and anxiety during art therapy sessions. Learning to make art gives them a new tool to deal with worry or discomfort outside of therapy or after cancer treatment is finished. Sometimes, said Hartsook, the people who get the most out of art therapy are the ones who least expect it.
“We have a lot of people who wouldn’t identify as a super creative person, but they’re willing to give it a try and they need something a little different. He’s the kind of person who benefits the most, ”said Hartsook.
Sometimes cancer prompts people to try things they would not have considered in their life before cancer. For others, art bridges a person’s pre-cancer and post-cancer life, she said.
“There are a lot of people who go on and spend a lot of time doing art after cancer. It can create an identity for people at a time that can be so difficult. It’s one of the weird silver liners that we sometimes see, ”Hartsook said. “For some people, it’s just a springboard, but we put everything in place so that you are a confirmed artist or that you are someone who wants to create but does not really know how, we try to offer things that are user-friendly. to everybody.”