How Expressive Arts Help Patients Cope with Cancer

“Fun” is not a term largely associated with trips to Dana-Farber, but that’s exactly how Yvette Colon describes the Expressive Art Therapy Program at the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies.

“Being sick, I forget what it is like to have fun because it’s easy to only think about cancer and treatment,” says Colon, a pancreatic cancer patient who has participated in many arts therapy sessions, such as creating jewelry, painting, and learning how to play the drums. “Cancer can shut down your creative side, and expressive art therapy allows me to gain back a part of me that went away for awhile.”

expressive arts, integrative therapies, block printing
Patients who participate in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program have many opportunities to create their own artwork, like block printing.

The program is designed to offer alternative ways for patients to cope with treatment. Specifically, it helps with techniques for reducing pain or stress, as each activity aims to be relaxing and technique-driven.

“One of our goals in offering expressive arts therapies is to provide non-threatening and accessible interventions that clinically address treatment goals, such as stress and pain management,” says Heather Woods, MT-BC, the program’s manager. “A therapeutic creative process can also provide opportunity for patients to reconnect with a positive sense of self and normalcy that can be overshadowed by treatment.”

“Research shows that offering coping skills through creative expression can support patients in being more empowered, hopeful, and resilient throughout the process,” Woods adds. “It is something that medication alone cannot provide, and because of this, many patients find these interventions are truly vital for their overall wellness.”

music therapy, integrative therapies, expressive art therapy
Heather Woods, MT-BC, the program manager for the Expressive Arts Therapy Program at Dana-Farber. Woods is pictured here with the program’s mobile music studio.

For Colon, expressive art therapy is an important outlet for self-expression. It also gives structure to her day, provides a welcome distraction from cancer, and the group environment allows for easy conversations among participants.

“It’s nice to interact in a space where I don’t have to explain anything about my cancer experience to people,” she says. “I always feel better after leaving the art therapy sessions, and I carry the positive feelings all the way home.”

pastels, expressive arts
Patients have access all to many different art supplies and resources through the Expressive Arts Therapy Program.

Colon also enjoys the Dana-Farber Audio Art Tour and she makes a point to stop and admire the artwork during her visits to the Institute. The collection, created by Acoustiguide, Inc. and the Friends of Dana-Farber Art and Environment Committee, is located throughout the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care. It gives patients, their families and staff access to more than 500 works of art from local, regional and internationally-acclaimed artists.

For patients like Colon, whose minds are often occupied by cancer, the art collection offers respite from treatment.

artwork, art galleries, William Chappell
Some of the artwork featured in the Yawkey Center’s Chappell and Gromtseff art exhibit. A gift from Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, the exhibit features William “Billy” Chappell costume designs, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mass.

“Compelling and recurring comments from patients and families confirm the value of art in health care,” says Elaine Tinetti, Art Program administrator. “It enhances our public spaces, brings comfort, and provides moments of inspiration and quiet reflection.”

The self-guided audio tour features highlights of the art at the Yawkey Center. Guides are available in the Shapiro Center for Patients and Families (Yawkey 1), so patients can begin and end the tour at their convenience.

More information about the Expressive Arts Program is available through the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies.

A close-up of some of the William "Billy" Chappell costume designs featured in the Yawkey Center's Chappell and Gromtseff art exhibit.
A close-up of some of the William “Billy” Chappell costume designs featured in the Yawkey Center’s Chappell and Gromtseff art exhibit.