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Ars Medica: Soothing cancer patients through art therapy

Jake Gibson
Published: Tuesday, Apr 19, 2011
"The natural healing force within each one
of us is the greatest force in getting well."

-Hippocrates
The term "psychosomatic," which originates from the Greek terms "psyche" for "mind" and "soma" for "body," refers to anything involving the mind and body, a connection that has been studied since ancient times. Before Western medicine took root, therapies often tapped both the mind and body to promote healing. Examples include meditation, aromatherapy, yoga, and acupuncture, all of which have been historically dismissed by Western medicine, a practice that has largely viewed the mind and body as separate entities. However, studies are increasingly finding such therapies to be beneficial, generating renewed interest in the mind-body connection. Today, mind-body medicine is known by a variety of terms, including "psychosomatic medicine," "holistic medicine," and "alternative medicine," and in addition to reassessing the value of ancient practices such as yoga or meditation, new techniques are being developed, including art therapy. While visual expression dates back to prehistoric man, art therapy became a distinct profession in the 1940s when psychiatrists and educators independently discovered art expression to correlate with an individual's developmental, cognitive, and emotional state.1 Today, art therapy is practiced in a variety of settings and tailored to numerous populations, including those with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Daisey And IDaisey And I. The image represents Connie's journey, beginning with her diagnosis, where she is crouched on the ground, simply stunned. The daisy at her side represents her dog, Daisey. In the next 2 panels, she is slowly going through treatment, gaining her footing, with Daisey steadfast at her side. In the last representation, Connie emerges from her treatment, but her Daisey is gone.
(Click to enlarge)
Examining Art Therapy

Art therapy uses a variety of techniques to engage individuals in creative expressions such as sculpting, painting, drawing, and collage. Art therapists often work as part of a team that includes physicians, psychologists, nurses, mental health counselors, social workers, and other professionals.1 Patients with cancer may participate in individual or group sessions in which they are guided through compositions meant to aid them in expressing emotions and concerns associated with their condition through a visual medium. Compositions may be free form, or a therapist may specifically instruct the patient to depict themselves with cancer, thereby attempting to gain insights into the patient's feelings about his or her condition, which may have remained subliminal or been difficult for the patient to express. Art techniques are not taught during sessions, as the emphasis is on the experience of creating the art rather than the look of the end product. Once the art is completed, the art therapist helps the patient interpret the art they created. Another art therapy technique, though used more rarely, is reactive, asking the patient to look at works of art such as paintings or photographs from the patient's life and describe the feelings these images evoke. Whatever method is used, art therapy aims to encourage positive coping behaviors by providing an environment where the patients feel a measure of control over their work and their world, as well a sense of authorship and increased self-esteem after the work is complete.

Benefits of Art Therapy

Numerous studies have indicated that patients who participate in art therapy have experienced some relief from pain, nausea, and anxiety,2 but like many mind-body therapies, it is difficult to objectively demonstrate the benefits, and the majority of information comes from the testimonies of individual patients or informal studies without a control group. Nevertheless, there have been several notable controlled studies involving patients with various cancers.

One study, which laid the groundwork for a more concrete demonstration of the benefits of art therapy, was reported in 2005 by Monti and colleagues.3 Practicing a technique the therapists termed 'mindfulness-based art therapy' (MBAT), the study involved 111 women with various cancer diagnoses who were paired by age and randomized with either an 8-week MBAT intervention group or a wait-listed control group. The investigators found that compared with controls, the women who received MBAT demonstrated a significant decrease in stress-related symptoms and reported a higher quality of life.


View Conference Coverage
Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Community Practice Connections™: 18th Annual International Lung Cancer Congress®Oct 31, 20181.5
Provider and Caregiver Connection™: Addressing Patient Concerns While Managing Chemotherapy Induced Nausea and VomitingOct 31, 20182.0
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