I have a lot of experience of art therapy being beneficial for child and adult clients who are experiencing grief, loss and change, including cancer patients.

Art therapy, either one-on-one or in a group involves the art therapist building a therapeutic relationship with their client/s and then inviting their client/s to use art making (drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, or a mixture of these mediums) to help with the expression of issues and related emotions (both positive and negative). This process often makes it easier for clients to talk about hard issues and to move forward. Clients do not need to have any prior experience of art making to benefit from art therapy.

New Zealand doctor and university lecturer Professor Shaun Holt describes evidence-based research for art therapy with cancer patients in his book “Complementary Therapies for Cancer -What works, what doesn’t and how to tell the difference”.

Professor Holt states that despite being initially skeptical about art therapy, he discovered that art therapy is an excellent option for people with cancer who are looking for complementary therapies to reduce symptoms and help with the psychological trauma of a cancer diagnosis.

The research studies included studies from the US and the UK and Sweden (unfortunately there is no NZ research):

Positive effects in a group of 109 patients with laryngeal Cancer

Art therapy with a group of Swedish women with non-metastatic breast cancer which showed increased ability to cope with side effects from chemotherapy

Positive effects for a group of children with leukemia undergoing painful procedures including lumbar punctured and bone marrow transplants.

A study with 50 patients where art therapy supported the patients to cope with symptom management including pain.

In my own work with clients with a diagnosis of cancer, clients have been able to separate themselves from the cancer through drawing the cancer. Through externalising the cancer, clients are then able to take back some control.

Professor Holt states that in the US the American Art Therapy Association sets the standards and registration for art therapists. In New Zealand, we have the Australian New Zealand Arts Therapy Association.

For further information about art therapy please contact: SerenaS@cancersoc.org.nz

Holt, S. (2010). Complementary Therapies for Cancer; what works and what doesn’t…and how to tell the difference. Potton&Burton: New Zealand.

Serena Stace, counsellor for the Cancer Society Wellington Division.

Serena is a counsellor and art therapist. Prior to training in art therapy and counselling, Serena worked as a paediatric oncology nurse.

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