Doctors, artists explore connection between creativity and healing

Anne Turville knows radiation and chemotherapy killed the cancer in her daughter’s ribs and lungs. But the Gahanna, Ohio, mother believes that making pottery also helped keep Sarah alive.

Anne Turville knows radiation and chemotherapy killed the cancer in her daughter’s ribs and lungs. But the Gahanna, Ohio, mother believes that making pottery also helped keep Sarah alive.

Sarah, now 16, discovered pottery in 2006 at a camp for sick children, and insisted on taking lessons when she returned home.

“She has done remarkably well,” Turville said. “I am sure that pottery had a big part in this.”

The opportunity for artistic expression often makes a meaningful difference in a patient’s health, said Dr. Larry Norton, deputy physician-in-chief for breast cancer programs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Others find yoga, exercise or writing helpful.

“There’s a growing awareness among people that healing is about more than what pill you take,” Norton said.

Art therapy — the connection between the creative process and healing — is being explored in hospital rooms and art studios around the country.

Norton sees art helping patients develop a greater self-awareness, which allows them to make sounder decisions about their health and treatments. Dealing with cancer requires “knowledge of who you are,” he said. “Art really helps that.”

Often, art provides a way for patients to express feelings they can’t put into words, added art therapist Tracy Councill, who runs a program for children with cancer at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University Children’s Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Creating vases and other pottery pieces made Sarah Turville feel better and worry less, she said.

“I thought it was fun and wanted to continue doing it,” she said.

Alicia Paulson used art to quell the pain she endured after being hit by a garbage truck and seriously injuring her foot in March 1998. She received an embroidery kit in a care package after her accident, and began embroidering sheets and pillowcases.

“It literally became a pain management technique,” said Paulson of Portland, Ore. “It became something I had to do to survive the pain I was feeling from the recovery of my surgeries.”

Paulson eventually started a business selling embroidery pieces and other handmade items. Today, she works as a craft designer, author and photographer. Her reconstructed foot causes her daily pain.

During her recovery, Paulson said she was attracted to embroidery because she had control over the process. She found it “very satisfying to watch those spaces fill up with colour.”

Patients often are drawn to art because it is something they can control, Councill said.

“It really helps them feel like they can get their feet on the ground,” she said.

Patients tend to relax when they’re doing art, and that helps them process what’s happening to them, she said.

“Often they figure out what questions they have,” she said. “It helps them articulate (their needs and concerns) to doctors and nurses.”

While being treated for leukemia, 12-year-old Daniel Shank-Rowe looked forward to going to the Lombardi Cancer Center, where he created figures out of pipe cleaners and a castle out of boxes.

“Doing art doesn’t make you feel like a normal kid,” he said.

“It makes how you are feeling normal for once.”

Daniel, who has been in remission for a year, said he was “a little bummed” when doctors said he didn’t have to visit the cancer centre — and its art studio — as often.

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