Cancer Survivorship: Creative Therapies

By Barrie Cassileth, PhD

Creativity is inherently therapeutic, whether we are making something ourselves or enjoying the creativity of others. We have all experienced the joy of viewing or creating artwork, playing or listen­ing to music, and hearing or telling a good joke or funny story. Seeking joy through creativity not only is fun but can also promote healing.

Creative therapies include art, mu­sic, dance, and humor. They all en­gage the senses and involve either pro­ducing or experiencing a work of art. In so doing they can decrease stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, and entertain patients with serious illness­es. They can also relieve pain and dis­comfort by redirecting your attention and provide a healthy way, usually without words, to express fears and feelings about your disease or discom­fort. To be clear, these creative modal­ities are all complementary therapies to be used along with conventional treatment; none can cure disease in and of itself.

These types of therapies are gener­ally inexpensive and produce health benefits without the risk of side ef­fects. You can practice them inde­pendently, or they can be facilitated by a professional therapist. Many hospitals offer creative therapies to patients while they are hospitalized and may even send professional ther­apists to patient rooms. Practitioners frequently start off as artists them­selves and then become interested in the medical application of their art.

Common Creative Therapies

  • Art therapy allows patients to freely create through drawing, painting, or even sculpture and to express them­selves without fear of judgment or criticism. The creative process helps promote self-awareness, as well as physical and emotional healing, while also building self-esteem. Sometimes it can be very difficult to verbalize our thoughts, fears, and other hidden emotions. In these cases, expressing them through artwork can be thera­peutic. Art therapists provide advice, emotional support, and the paint­brush and paper—or whatever tools are needed.
  • Music therapy harnesses the pow­er of music to uplift our mood and arouse our emotions. It involves per­forming, creating, or listening to mu­sic to encourage healing and promote a general sense of well-being. Patients listen to or perform music with the guidance of a professional music ther­apist. The therapist can help develop lyrics, improvise with the patient, or simply provide technical and emotion­al support. The practice can enhance relaxation, creativity, pleasure, and self-expression while helping reduce pain and feelings of isolation. Music therapy is provided by musicians who received training, typically graduate training, in the use of music (rather than only words) as therapy. It is es­pecially helpful in a hospital setting.
  • Dance therapy is a multisensory approach that combines movement, music, and social interaction. It sup­ports patients in expressing the expe­rience of their illness and helps reduce feelings of isolation by promoting relationships with others. It also pro­vides excellent physical exercise, with benefits to muscle strength, balance, and overall fitness. Dance therapy provides an outlet for expressing feel­ings and releasing tension through movement. It can be relaxing, ex­hilarating, and empowering and can be effective regardless of your age or physical ability.
  • Humor therapy is the purposeful use of humor as a complementary therapy to enliven and enhance well-being for people who are ill. Laughter, funny as it may sound, can actually make a big difference. It improves quality of life, redirects attention away from chronic pain, and encourages relaxation and stress release. Many hospitals provide humorous books or videos, or even trained laughter therapists. Humor can also provide a means for com­municating with caregivers and loved ones and can be an effective icebreaker when thoughts or feelings are difficult to express. As an old Irish saying goes, “a good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”

Where Can I Get Creative Therapies?

Many hospitals have art, music, and/ or dance therapists on staff and offer those services to hospitalized patients. Professional therapists often come to patient rooms. Other medical centers have recreation areas where music, art, or dance can be informally per­formed, and humor can be practiced just about anywhere. On an outpa­tient basis, these creative arts can be pursued on your own, with family or friends, or with the help of a private therapist.


 

Excerpted with permission from Survivorship: Living Well During and After Cancer (Spry Pub­lishing, 2014; $16.95), by Barrie Cassileth, PhD. © Copyright 2014 Spry Publishing. Available for purchase everywhere books are sold.


 

Prescribed Reading

In Survivorship: Living Well during and after Cancer (Spry, 2014; $16.95), Barrie Cassileth, PhD, offers a comprehensive overview of evidence-based integrative cancer treatment, providing a welcome resource for patients and their loved ones. Dr. Cassileth provides background on complementary therapies, describing various options and their potential to alleviate symptoms of cancer treatment and including important information about current research related to each topic. Written in a clear, accessible style, the book provides insight throughout to differentiate effective, evidence-based treatments from dangerous “alternative” therapies. The result of Dr. Cassileth’s work is a book that is at once easy to understand and backed by considerable research—a valuable resource for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis.