Art therapy

Art therapy may also be called creative arts therapy or expressive arts therapy. It is based on the idea that creating art can be healing. It can be a way for people to express their unspoken or unconscious concerns about their illness and their lives, deal with emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness, cope with cancer and reduce stress.

Art therapy can take place in groups or on a one-to-one basis. All therapy environments should be supportive. It’s important that you feel safe and comfortable with the art therapist and with others in the group if you are in a group program.

In one form of art therapy, the art therapist encourages you to express your feelings or emotions such as fear, anger, sadness or isolation. You can express yourself through painting, drawing, sculpting or other types of artwork. Then the art therapist talks to you about your feelings and emotions about the art you have created.

You don’t have to be able to paint well or produce great works of art in art therapy. You may use different materials to create art that represents:

  • what you think your cancer looks like
  • how you see yourself after treatment has finished
  • how cancer has affected your relationship with your partner or family

In another form of art therapy, the art therapist may ask you to look at photographs or art work and talk about what you see or how you feel about them.

Art therapy as a complementary therapy

There is no evidence at this time that art therapy can treat cancer itself. As with all types of psychological therapy, some people may find art therapy helpful, while others may not.

People living with cancer, their partners and family members have used art therapy as a way to help deal with their emotions.

People who have difficulty expressing their feelings with words can find art therapy very helpful. Research has shown that it can be very useful in helping children and teens communicate how they feel about their cancer and treatment.

Some studies show that art therapy may help people living with cancer cope with depression and fatigue. It may help improve quality of life and reduce stress.

We need more research to understand the role that art therapy has as a complementary therapy in helping people cope with cancer.

Side effects and risks of art therapy

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about starting art therapy. Art therapy can be a useful complementary therapy that helps people with cancer deal with their emotions. Even though uncomfortable feelings may arise, this is part of the healing process.

Finding a therapist

Art therapists are trained in art and in counselling or therapy techniques. Many art therapists have degrees in social work or psychology. The Canadian Art Therapy Association sets standards for art therapists. Registered art therapists must meet certain training or education requirements. Many cancer treatment centres have art therapists as part of the healthcare team.

Expert review and references

  • Bar-Sela, G., Atid, L., Danos, S., et al . Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy. Psycho-Oncology. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2007.
  • Deane, K., Fitch, M., & Carman, M . An innovative art therapy program for cancer patients. Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology (CANO); 2000.
  • Deng GE, et al . Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. Society for Integrative Oncology; 2009.
  • Lawson LM, Williams P, Glennon C, et al . Effect of art making on cancer-related symptoms of blood and marrow transplantation recipients. Oncology Nursing Forum. Oncology Nursing Society; 2012.
  • Luzzatto PM, Magill L . Art therapy and music therapy. Holland JC, Breitbart WS, Jacobsen PB, Lederberg MS, Loscalzo MJ, McCorkle R (eds.). Psycho-Oncology. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press; 2010: 57: 422-428.
  • Puetz TW, Morly CA, Herring P . Effects of creative arts therapies on psychological symptoms and quality of life in patients with cancer. JAMA Internal Medicine. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association; 2013.
  • Rollins, J. A . Tell me about it: drawing as a communication tool for children with cancer. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders; 2005.