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Creativity and Cancer: Using Art To Help With Healing

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times 

For cancer patients, artistic expression can be a form of therapeutic healing. Texas Oncology physicians discuss the countless opportunities for cancer patients to engage in artistic endeavor as a coping strategy.

It’s no secret that enduring great challenges often ignites creativity. As renowned scientist Neil deGrasse once said, “The most creative people are motivated by the grandest of problems that are presented before them.” As an oncologist, I’ve seen many cancer patients turn to creative expression, sometimes almost unintentionally and often with great deliberation.

Every patient travels a unique, personal “cancer journey.” It’s different for everyone, but there are common threads – tightly bound and woven together like a colorful canvas – representing shared experiences. These shared experiences are sometimes revealed through creative expression, or art.

Being creative can be therapeutic and may help with healing. Whether it’s taking up a new hobby or musical instrument, joining a choir or dance group, writing, or taking art classes, there are countless opportunities for cancer patients to engage in artistic endeavor as a coping strategy.

What qualifies as art? The answers are as diverse as the patient journey itself – there’s no right or wrong way of defining it. What matters is whether it supports the healing process and promotes a sense of emotional or spiritual wellbeing. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an artist or a highly creative person, you may be surprised once you find an artform you enjoy. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you find ways to use creativity to cope with cancer:

  • Find balance. If fitting creative pursuits into your busy schedule feels impossible, it may be a sign it’s time to slow down. Balance is key to health and wellness, particularly for those with cancer. You may not feel well every day, and it’s understandable to want to use the days you’re at your best to take care of your obligations. Setting aside time to explore your creative side in the midst of it all can help you find balance and relax.

  • Express yourself. The decision to talk about your cancer is an intensely personal and private one. That’s why some people choose to use art as a way of telling their story from their own unique perspective and in a unique way. Whether sharing your art widely or keeping it private, keep in mind there are no boundaries – just free expression of your thoughts and ideas. 

  • Find a partner. Finding a partner to join you in your creative pursuits is not only fun, it helps strengthen connections with those close to you. Family, caregivers, and friends are usually fair game, but don’t shy away from joining a community art class or finding a local support network. 

Interested in tapping into your creative side, but not sure what to do or where to begin? Check out your local community center or local events calendars for resources near you. You may also find resources and information online about creativity as a way of coping with cancer. Perhaps the easiest way is to simply get started. Find a creative project and pursue it. 

The emotional and physical toll cancer takes can hinder a patient’s desire to do something unfamiliar or different. It’s also hard to find motivation when energy isn’t easy to come by, particularly during treatment. Yet I am constantly inspired by my patients who use art in its various forms to help them cope and tell their own truths about their cancer experience on their terms. I’m proud to work for a network that supports patients as they find new ways to express themselves on their cancer journey.

Jane Chawla, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Austin Central, 6204 Balcones Drive in Austin, Texas. 

Caesar Tin-U, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Sugar Land, 1350 First Colony Blvd. in Sugar Land, Texas.

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