Creativity and Healing

My father played the guitar and sang, mostly folk music.  Laura loved to hear my dad sing and especially loved Gordon Lightfoot. So we would go and sit with Laura and listen to my dad sing “Rainbow Trout” and “Beautiful”.  In those moments I remember feeling as though the world stood still; it was a time to be together and present in the music. This was my first experience with music as a means of providing solace for a loved one through illness.  


Many years later, I cared for my grandfather through the last year of his life. My grandfather had been diagnosed with colon cancer several years before and we would learn toward the end of his last year, that the cancer had returned and was metastatic.  When I was a child my grandfather loved to play the music of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Beach Boys and other oldies music.  On my grandfather's last day, my mother and I were sitting by his bedside.  He had not been responsive most of the day, so we decided to play some of the music that he loved, in the hope that it would arouse him. As the music played, we began to notice some gentle responses of hand squeezes and for the first time that day, my grandfather was not restless. Within a short time after hearing his most beloved music, my grandfather passed away peacefully.  


My personal experiences with music as healing are echoed in the research literature. Music therapy has been effectively used with cancer patients in inpatient and outpatient settings to reduce anxiety, pain, and stress throughout the course of illness (Bradt,, 2015; Huang,, 2010; Rossetti,, 2017; Stanczyk, 2011).  Individuals using music therapy can be active or receptive, meaning they may be engaged in the making of music with instruments or other technology, or they may be listening to live or recorded music (Stanczyk, 2011).  Music making and listening have been shown to be equally effective in improving psychological outcomes and reducing pain in cancer patients (Bradt,, 2015).


With both of my family experiences of using music during cancer, the type of music was significant.  We used music that was meaningful to our loved ones. Music therapy studies reinforce that music used must be culturally appropriate (such as Christian songs for those of the Catholic faith) and chosen based on personal connections to music (such as an artist the person loved to listen to growing up) (Huang,, 2010).  Through the therapeutic use of music, family members and providers can help assist individuals affected by cancer to find peace and comfort.

Painting by Lauren Potts

Music and Healing

When I was four years old, my mom’s cousin Laura was diagnosed with leukemia.  Laura was in college at Temple University and would come over on her way home from school to bring apples to my brothers and me. I remember Laura joyfully bounding up our stairs, with a cheerful smile amidst her dark wavy hair and porcelain skin.  One day we learned Laura was sick, and was not able to visit. Instead we went to Laura’s house to see her.

Photo by Victoria Health on Unsplash

Writing the Story of Healing

 Throughout my personal and professional experience, I have come to understand the process of writing as a form of catharsis.  For oncology patients writing can take a variety of forms, from self-monitoring journals shared with physicians or nurses to  expressive writing meant to improve psychological well-being (Hermansen-Kobulnicky & Purtzer, 2014; Oh & Kim, 2016).  

The emotional trauma of a cancer diagnosis can profoundly affect the life of the patient.  It is estimated that 30% of patients with cancer have been diagnosed with a mental health condition (Oh & Kim, 2016).  One writing intervention that has shown to be effective in reducing psychological symptoms is expressive writing, which offers individuals the opportunity to express their emotions and thoughts about their cancer experience (Haga Gripsrud,, 2016; Oh & Kim, 2016). Though it may be painful to write about a difficult loss or traumatic experience, research has demonstrated that the process of writing can release emotional, cognitive, and relational stress, by allowing the painful experience to exist in the written narrative (Haga Gripsrud,, 2016).  


Body image is another important concept that arises from cancer treatment and consequent changes in physical appearance. Writing interventions focused on self-compassion have been specifically designed for body image concerns. Self-compassionate writing involves prompts to view one’s experience or self-image from an alternative and compassionate stance (Przezdziecki & Sherman, 2016).   

Patients may also write daily journals about symptoms, side effects, treatments, questions for physicians or nurses, sleep, eating, and other routine details.  These types of journals can be useful in reflecting upon treatment and in using medical appointments more effectively by having prepared information and questions (Hermansen-Kobulnicky & Purtzer, 2014).  Regardless of the type of writing one chooses to engage in, it is evident that writing can provide emotional relief and clarity during and beyond the cancer experience.  

Painting to Heal

Expressive painting, visual art, and art therapy interventions are opportunities for

cancer patients to connect with art as a form of emotional release, while building

self-awareness, and finding a place of peace, amidst life-threatening illness. 

Typically a diverse group of patients attend my painting workshops, with respect to their diagnoses, stages of treatment, and experiences with art.  Some are practicing artists, while others may have had limited experiences with painting, or have not engaged in  art-making for many years.

Photo by Victoria Bilsborough on Unsplash

In the beginning of groups there are many questions and concerns voiced about the process. Group members struggle with whether they have creative abilities and often get quite frustrated.  As the facilitator, my role is to help ease everyone into the process with instructions focused on helping each person to work with the colors and brush strokes that are comfortable to them.  Participants inevitably fall into a rhythm with their art making, and the art creation begins to fall into a silence.  With only the sounds of brushes against canvas and tapping on water dishes amidst the silence. The silence that develops during art creation is comfortable to group members, as the art making allows them to be very present and to focus on self-expression in their work (Regev,, 2016).  


Group art therapy experiences can be very healing in that they offer individuals the opportunity to share and provide feedback on their work with one another (Rankanen, 2016). It has been demonstrated in research that creative interventions, like art making, can benefit anxiety, depression, quality of life, coping and mood (Archer,, 2015; Bozcuk,, 2017; Hertrampf & Warja, 2017; Oster,, 2014; Puetz,, 2013). The creative process and catharsis have been found to be connected and contribute to emotional healing for individuals living with cancer, as the artist develops the ability to release their deeply-held emotions through the expressive art process (Heiney,, 2015). 


Art creation can also benefit those facing the end of life due to cancer, as art creation is an opportunity to leave a piece of oneself behind in the art (Heiney,, 2015). Throughout the course of illness, art creation can be a meaningful and expressive process, where the individual can learn to find moments of insight, peace, and emotional release.  Regardless of one's level of ability or experience, visual art can be an accessible resource and a valuable tool in emotional healing.