Art therapy offers artistic freedom and empowerment to people with cancer
Linda Westervelt enjoys making her own choices. Too often as a cancer patient, however, she has to leave decisions about her treatment and health in the hands of her doctors.
But when Westervelt participates in the art therapy program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, she's in control.
"It's nice to make decisions in art therapy, and it's a good outlet for that," Westervelt says. "There are a lot of things going on outside of a patient's control, and although my doctors give me choices once in a while, they're the ones who know the right way. Art therapy is a great environment to make my own decisions."
U-M offers one-on-one art therapy sessions for cancer patients and survivors, led by Margaret Nowak, the Cancer Center's art therapist. The sessions are designed to help patients increase self-awareness and cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences.
Nowak says that the dynamic of these sessions allows patients control they sometimes lack in other aspects of their lives. Sessions begin with a discussion about the patient's health and well-being, and from there, Nowak helps direct the patient toward an artistic avenue of their choice.
"Patients always control the session," says Nowak. "They're pretty self-directed. Sometimes they say, 'I know that I have been holding in a lot of feelings, and I'm trying to stay strong, but for my health I need to let some things go. I've never painted before, and I want to know what it's like.'"
Westervelt says channeling her thoughts and feelings through various art projects can be a relaxing distraction.
"It gives me a real lift," she says. "It's very nice to have an outlet for creativity and thinking about something. Making something of my own gives me a really satisfying feeling."
Nowak offers patients the opportunity to not only paint, but to use other art supplies such as colored pencils, pastels and pens, as well as craft items like wooden picture frames, bird houses, ceramic tiles and paper for origami. She brings her "art studio on wheels" -- a cart filled to the brim with various arts and crafts supplies -- to the one-on-one sessions.
Although Nowak says she's worked with patients who have an artistic background, many patients have no art experience at all.
"People will say, "I don't think I'm really interested in art,' and then I'll show them things on the cart," she says. "A half hour goes by, and they say, 'That was really fun.' Many people who have had no interest find that simple art projects are really therapeutic."
Nowak says the sessions can help patients increase their self-awareness and alleviate mental and physical pain. She says patients will sometimes begin a session saying their pain is at an 8 or 9 out of 10. But by the end of the session, things are different.
"It's amazing to both me and them, that they'll say the pain is at one or none, it's gone," Nowak says. "Part of it is just being in the moment. People realize this is a benefit that can make them feel better physically."
"I feel so much better," she says. "It's like I've done something worthwhile and useful to me. I believe it's improving my health, and I feel like I can cope better."
Continue reading about art therapy and complementary therapies:
- Sharing the Light: A breast cancer survivor finds peace of mind to reclaim her life
- Imagining Wellness: Guided imagery engages the senses to cope with cancer
- Finding the Right Help: Tips for seeking out complementary therapy providers in your hometown
- Support Systems: One patient reflects upon what helped her most throughout cancer