The power of art and music therapy
Discover how artistic activities can aid cancer patients in surprising ways. Music or art therapy not only reduces stress and anxiety, but may even help with physical symptoms.
Singing, painting, and playing instruments. We did these activities in grade school, but it turns out that music and art provide many emotional, mental, and physical health benefits, especially for cancer patients.
A growing body of research shows art and music therapy can soothe symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients. Many cancer support centres now offer expressive art therapy programs. These programs allow patients to participate in activities that involve deep personal expression, such as painting, sculpting, drawing, singing, and playing instruments.
We all know certain songs can evoke memories and activate emotional responses, but for cancer patients, singing in a choir can have many powerful psychosocial benefits as well, including improvements to mental health.
The Welsh cancer charity Tenovus, in partnership with Cardiff University in the UK, released data in 2014 that showed group singing can bring a range of health and well-being benefits, including a feeling of being uplifted, a sense of belonging, and feelings of accomplishment, as well as reduced anxiety and depression. Both cancer patients and their carers benefited from choral singing.
Catherine Manning is a music therapist at Wellspring, a cancer support network with centres in Ontario and Alberta. She says singing in a choir provides social support to individuals who may otherwise find themselves isolated by their illness.
“Many group members share that some of their prior friendships have faded away as people are uncomfortable with how to behave with someone who is sick with cancer,” she says. The choir provides a supportive environment where those affected by cancer can find camaraderie.
Manning leads a weekly music therapy support group that includes communal singing, as well as improvisation with rhythm instruments such as hand drums, finger cymbals, and maracas. She also includes guided imagery exercises. Music therapy, she says, helps cancer patients cope with their diagnosis, treatment side effects, and emotional issues such as loneliness and fear of death.
Singing also has many physical benefits. Deep breathing (called diaphragmatic breathing) stabilizes blood pressure and supports reoxygenation of organs. “It also calms the nervous system and brings deepened relaxation to the mind,” says Manning.
Often participants will remark on a sensation of tingling in their body during and after music therapy sessions. “This is the blood being activated through singing, and also the increased vibration and resonance when there’s unison and harmony going on in group singing,” says Manning.
In various studies, listening to and/or playing music has been found to reduce stress (in part by reducing the stress hormone cortisol) and even reduce the perception of pain. In one study, listening to music was more effective than medication in reducing anxiety before surgery. Group singing has been shown to be particularly effective in boosting the immune system.
Some participants who have had head and neck cancers experience permanent voice changes as a result of their radiation treatments and surgeries. But this doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from music therapy. Manning recalls a woman who’d lost her voice from radiation on her throat.
“She mouthed the words; she participated in songwriting,” says Manning.
Participants who experience nausea will often close their eyes and simply take in the music around them to calm down. “Music touches the soul and the spirit in a way that nothing else does,” says Manning.
Sculpting, painting, and drawing have been used for years to help children on the autism spectrum and those with difficulties expressing their emotions, as well as patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But art therapist Elva Palo says art is also a powerful vehicle for helping cancer patients express emotions that they struggle to vocalize.
“Everyone has the ability to be creative; it’s not reserved for people with special talents,” says Palo, who encourages participants to let their subconscious mind come to the surface through the art process. “It’s about allowing yourself to create, and as you’re working through, you notice what it looks like. And that’s when you get more information about what it is that’s on your mind and what the emotions and feelings are that are following you around day in and day out.”
Art therapy can improve mental health by improving blood flow to certain areas of the brain and lowering cortisol. In a 2012 study of women with breast cancer, art therapy combined with a mindfulness-based stress reduction program produced changes in brain activity associated with lower stress and anxiety.
Art may even help reduce physical symptoms in cancer patients. One study found patients who participated in art therapy reported significant reductions in tiredness, pain, lack of appetite, and shortness of breath after spending one hour working on an art project of their choice.
Unlike your grade 7 art class, there’s no right or wrong way to do art in an art therapy setting, and you don’t have to be a Michelangelo to benefit. In mindfulness-based art therapy, the process rather than the final product is the focus.
“It’s not an art class where there’s an expectation for you to learn how to do things a certain way,” says Palo.
This is a class where the only requirement is to let your mind guide your hands. The result is always something beautiful and unexpected.