Art Therapy for Cancer

What is Art Therapy?

Through the use of art materials within a safe environment art therapy gives people the chance of coping with symptoms, emotions, stress, traumatic experiences, enhance cognitive abilities, while relaxing and enjoying the life-affirming activity of making art.

When a person engages by reflecting on the art products and processes it brings them into a different space. Art therapists are trained both in art and therapy so they are able to enhance the experience for the art therapy client. Their knowledge encompasses clinical practice, psychological theories, healing potential of art as well as multi-cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions.

Art therapy gives the freedom to express emotions with art materials that otherwise may be difficult to express. Arts and creativity influence health positively (1) through their psychological and psycho-social impact which strengthens the emotional and mental well being of the individual.

It is important to know that art therapy does not require artistic skills. The vast majority of children stop painting or drawing around the age of ten due to their feeling that their artwork may be inferior (2). In art therapy clients are encouraged to follow their intuition and choose the art materials that appeal to them. They are made understand that there are no rules in art making.

Art Therapy and Childhood Cancer

In Italy a study of 32 children with leukaemia (2) who had to undergo painful procedures such as lumbar puncture and bone marrow aspiration had positive results. Children who were hospitalised before and were not part of this study showed anxiety and resistance during and after these painful procedures.

However the 32 children (aged 2-14 years) showed collaborative behaviour from the first hospitalisation. If the intervention had to be prevented either they or their parents asked for the Art Therapy again. The parents declared that it made them better able to manage the painful procedures.

Art therapy can work very well for children with cancer by giving them a safe way to communicate their anxieties. As children and adolescents do not always have the words to express what they are going through and are by nature creative, then art therapy can be a wonderful outlet for them.

It can:

  • Help express buried emotions
  • Give a feeling of self confidence and freedom
  • Help cope with grief, fear, anxiety and depression
  • Distract from pain and discomfort
  • Feel more positive


1.A study which was carried out on 50 adult cancer patients which used the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) (3) and the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Index showed positive results.

The patients who took part in the study had been diagnosed with leukaemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, GI/colorectal cancer, gynaecological cancer as well as a range of other malignancies.

Eight out of nine of the symptoms were significantly reduced (4) as measured by the ESAS. Nausea was the only symptom which did not change as a result of the art therapy.

2.The Cochrane Report which has the objective to assess the effects of interventions for improving communication with children and/or adolescents about their cancer, the implications and treatment. It includes one study of art therapy as support for children during painful procedures which reported an increase in positive, collaborative behaviour (5).

What Happens in an Art Therapy Session?

An Art Therapy Session can begin with some form of relaxation technique in order to help the people relax and attune to their inner selves.

The art materials are supplied and the art therapist encourages the unique creativity of each individual. The art image itself can be considered to be an entity in itself taking on meaning as it develops and connects to the person’s inner experiences.

It brings a connection between the mind, emotions, body and disease and is a form of release for unwanted emotions. Talk therapy can happen during the session but as it is intertwined with the creative space it is a natural development and therefore less invasive for some people than formal counselling/talk therapy forms.

A Brief History of Art Therapy

In the 1940’s artists who were working in psychiatric hospitals began to notice that forms of artwork could create a basis of a therapeutic relationship between the therapist and patient.

What the patient created gave the therapist a better understanding of the patient while being an important medium for communication.

Although this explanation relates to art therapy as we know of it today, in reality it has been used as a tool for communication as well as a way to capture the inexpressible in an image. Art has being considered by many for a long time to have healing power and even today Navaho medicine men continue to heal with sand paintings.