Unique Cancer Therapies Encourage Creativity, Calm, and Harmony

7 min read  |  June 14, 2019  | 
Disponible en Español |

Fighting cancer is hard on the body, mind, and spirit. But some non-traditional cancer therapies are helping to improve the quality of life for people undergoing treatment. Traditional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery certainly save lives. But, patients struggle with chemotherapy-related mental and physical effects, stress, depression, and too often, a loss of hope.

Cancer support services can provide far more than a welcome distraction from the stress of cancer treatment. They can uplift moods, improve brain function, reduce mobility limitations. They also restore a sense of purpose and independence, sparks creative thinking, encourages self-expression, and introduces cancer patients and their families to affectionate animals and inspiring art initiatives.

The art of cancer support

“Cancer patients engaged in art making are likely to experience a decrease in symptoms of physical and emotional distress during treatment,” explains Leah Andritsch, the Arts in Medicine facilitator with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is part of the University of Miami Health System.

“I work with patients individually chairside/bedside and in group workshops, using visual art and some craft activities to support patients’ well-being. Experiencing the stages of creativity can initiate the body’s relaxation response. This effect can enhance medical treatment by giving their bodies the strength to undergo the healing process.

“Art can also serve as a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness. Art making is a mindful experience that provides a physical and mental space to focus on the present task or image at hand. It allows the participant to escape from the noise that surrounds them in a healthcare setting. Making art can also help a patient or caregiver express experiences or emotions that are too difficult to put into words, such as a cancer diagnosis.

Engaging in artistic self-expression after a cancer diagnosis may help reconstruct the patient’s positive identity. It can provide meaning to a difficult experience and empower patients to exercise autonomy, which is commonly lost during treatment, and benefit from the sense of achievement.

Leah Andritsch, Arts in Medicine facilitator

“One particular patient of ours has really taken to painting,” she says. “The first time she tried painting was when I met her in the chemotherapy transfusion unit where she was receiving treatment. We did a small sunset painting together and, at the end, she was extremely proud of herself. Since then, she has continued to paint and says it’s her time to escape and relax. I was able to help someone discover her creativity as a means for enjoyment and wellbeing, which is all I could hope for, for all my participants.”

If you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment, consider taking a local art class or joining a craft workshop or club. Pick up an adult coloring book. Start an art journal, as one page may be more manageable than a whole canvas. Try crafting projects featured on Pinterest or YouTube.

Andritsch recommends any type of creative outlet or event that fits your interest. “If you’re interested in art, but not art making, visit a museum or attend a play or musical. Even being an observer of art can provide similar benefits as creating art.”

Everyone enjoys music. But using music as a means of cancer therapy is a revelation.

Music therapy is not just playing music for patients. This therapy provides environmental music in cancer centers, creating a sound atmosphere that’s more soothing to the central nervous system than ambient noise or the TV. Patients also benefit from instrument learning, improvisation, singing, songwriting, and music-assisted relaxation techniques. Some cancer survivors and their loved ones participate in a choir or chorus which reduces the lasting effects of chronic stress and can help support their immune health.

“While passive music listening can help to reduce pain and anxiety, many patients derive even more benefits from active engagement in music-assisted relaxation techniques,” says Mary Kauffman, a certified music therapist with Sylvester. These interventions involve active participation through guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing to music.

Simply listening to relaxing music calms heart and respiration rates, which relaxes tense muscles, reducing patients’ perceived pain and cramps. Actively making music releases dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain, which elevates mood, decreases depression, improves sleep patterns, and reduces the sensation of pain. Focusing on a piece of music or trying to play an instrument distracts patients from their pain and discomfort.

Patients who receive music therapy in a hospital setting tend to request less pain and nausea medication.

Mary Kauffman, certified music therapist

“Our methods are music-based, but these interventions aim to accomplish non-musical goals,” she says. “We meet patients where they are and give them tools to improve their immediate and continuing situation through music.”

If you or a loved one is unable to participate in Sylvester’s music therapy service, listen to music at home. Dancing or exercising to music at home or in a class is not only motivating. It is proven to reduce stress, elevate mood, help you maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risks of life-threatening diseases. Even if you don’t consider yourself a good singer, the act of singing as part of a group choir can stimulate your memory, attention, and coordination.

While a cancer diagnosis can trigger feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, Kauffman says, “accomplishing small goals, like learning to play a few chords on the ukulele, increases feelings of empowerment and resilience.”

“When nothing else can brighten the day for a cancer patient, a dog can make it happen,” Kauffman says.

Tangela Hillery, who organizes pet therapy services at Sylvester, says interacting with an animal is proven to lower your blood pressure and improve your mood. And that is beneficial for everyone, especially for cancer patients, their loved ones, and caregivers.

Some patients don’t have a pet at home, so animal therapy services offer access to calm and affectionate dogs. This will help alleviate some of the stress associated with cancer treatment.

“We’ve partnered with the Humane Society of Miami-Dade County for scheduled pet therapy days, and they bring three to four dogs to our facility for each visit,” Hillery says. “The dogs are trained and certified with the Good Canine Citizen Test, and they have the right temperament for this environment.”

What does pet therapy look like?

“We have one dog in the courtyard for staff and patients to sit with and play with in the grass. I also escort one or two of the dogs to the patient areas — in the clinic waiting room and the chemotherapy treatment unit where patients are actually receiving therapy,” says Hillery.

“They love to see the dogs and pet them. It serves a dual purpose because staff members also enjoy petting the dogs. It’s calming and a pleasant distraction from the stresses of the day. Some people follow me around the whole chemotherapy transfusion unit to get more interaction with the dogs.

“One day, we had a Great Dane — the size of a mini horse — and I couldn’t take two steps with him without someone wanting to stop and hug him and take a photo with this dog. We have a children cancer center, and another, smaller visiting dog was larger than this little boy in treatment. But, the boy followed the dog around the cancer center and cried when we left.

“What a joy this service brings to our patients, their families, and the staff. It’s the biggest therapy because it brings them happiness and relieves stress from what they’re going through. For that moment, they are in the moment with the dog. And the dogs enjoy it too. It’s amazing to see how patient and attentive the dogs can be, especially with patients who are in pain or having a hard day.”

Learn more about unique cancer therapies for cancer patients and survivors.

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.

Tags: art therapy, pet therapy, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

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