The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2014

"Art's therapeutic effect on cancer treatment" by Gustavo Pacheco


With difficult treatment procedures such as chemotherapy, it is no surprise that cancer debilitates both the patients physical and mental state. However, even with the challenges that cancer brings, many patients are capable of maintaining optimistic outlooks through different therapy methods. In recent years there has been “a growing number of hospitals across the US, [in which] cancer patients are using art.”[1] Could there be a treatment benefit from the artistic expression of cancer patients? 

Over the years, various studies have suggested that methods of artistic expression benefit cancer patients as a palliative measure of dealing with the disease and pain. One measure of the effects of the treatment is the improvement in the quality of the patient's life. Cancer treatment programs have implemented outlets for artistic expression for patients to alleviate stress and to prevent the patients from dwelling on their disease. Recently, the role of stress in exacerbating many diseases has also been addressed and cancer is not an exception. Therefore, activities such as those that allow for creative expression could be beneficial in cancer treatment. 

Stress can often lead to serious problems for a cancer patient by increasing inflammation, which exacerbates patient’s already deteriorating health. Inflammation is the body's attempt to protect itself by removing harmful stimuli such as cancer cells, irritants, or pathogens to begin the healing process of the affected organ[2]. However, in the process of an inflammatory response to a microenvironment of cell proliferation, survival and migration occurs, which are all processes in tumor cell development and cancer progression. Tumor cells overtake some signaling molecules and their receptors in the immune system to use them for invasion, migration, and metastasis. Thus, it is possible that high stress leads to higher inflammation and therefore favoring of cancer initiation and progression. 

In addition to reducing stress, there are other benefits of artistic expression. In narrative studies, it has been reported that artistic expression provides a heaven, allows for a better analysis of the situation, and enhances the quality of life in patients with breast cancer[3]. Interestingly, it is not only the process of making art that helps the patient but also the appreciation of art. Terminal cancer patients benefitted from art production and observation of body linings, artistic interpretations of human bodies, because it helps patients to manage their emotional crisis[4]. In addition another study indicated that patients undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer treatment had a marked improvement because they were able to cope better with the situation through art therapy[5]. However, while these artistic therapy provides benefits, the effects of these therapies are in many cases difficult to measure. The completion of more studies on art therapy’s effect on cancer patients could therefore shed more light into specific interventions like body lining therapy. 

Some therapeutic methods that have been employed have included writing and music. In one study, patients were asked to write pre-appointment, post-appointment, and follow up expressive writing tasks. During these tasks, the patients wrote for 20 minutes about their thoughts on their cancer[6]. Patients that engaged in expressive writing claimed to rethink their outlook thereby suggesting that their quality of life had improved. It appeared that by giving the patients the chance to rethink their illnesses, patients were able to improve their quality of life. This result could possibly be explained by how the reflective writing allowed patients to relieve stress due to their condition by expressing their contained thoughts and emotions. 

Additionally, the Ankara Numune Education and Research Hospital in Turkey has been conducting a study in which cancer patients take music and art classes during their chemotherapy. The patients stress levels are measured prior to the chemotherapy session and then again during the time they are involved in the classes and undergoing chemotherapy[7]. The results of this study show that with the art and music classes, there was a decrease in stress of the patients according to psychiatric measurements. These creative activities thus allow patients to forget about their disease briefly and relieve their stress. 

Results from these studies are able to strongly suggest that artistic expression helps a patient coping with cancer. Art therapy has the potential to decrease tension and stress in the patient. This helps in mitigating inflammation to reduce the progression of cancer, and therefore improve the health of the patient. Hopefully, with more studies of the relationship between art and health, more policies and programs will allow for artistic therapy and activities to occur in more hospitals and treatment centers. 


[1] Machiodi, Cathy. "The Bone Fractured Fairy Tale: A Story of Art as Salvation." Arts and Health. (accessed March 4, 2014). 
[2] Coussens, Lisa M., and Zena Werb. "Inflammation And Cancer." Nature 420, no. 6917 (2002): 860-867. 
[3] Öster, Inger, Ann-Christine Svensk, Eva Magnusson, Karin Egberg Thyme, Marie Sjõdin, Sture Åström, and Jack Lindh. "Art Therapy Improves Coping Resources: A Randomized, Controlled Study Among Women With Breast Cancer." Palliative & Supportive Care 4, no. 01 (2006): 57-64. 
[4] Gabriel, Bonnie, Elissa Bromberg, Jackie Vandenbovenkamp, Patricia Walka, Alice B. Kornblith, and Paola Luzzatto. "Art Therapy With Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Patients In Isolation: A Pilot Study." Psycho-Oncology 10, no. 2 (2001): 114-123. 
[5] Collie, K.. "A Narrative View Of Art Therapy And Art Making By Women With Breast Cancer." Journal of Health Psychology 11, no. 5 (2006): 761-775. 
[6] Morgan, N. P., K. D. Graves, E. A. Poggi, and B. D. Cheson. "Implementing An Expressive Writing Study In A Cancer Clinic." The Oncologist 13, no. 2 (2008): 196-204. 
[7] Anatolia News Agency. "Art has magic power in chemotherapy patients." Hurriyet Daily News | Haber Detay. (accessed February 10, 2014).

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