Art with Impact Therapy for cancer patients
The healing arts
BETH SMITH’S ART THERAPY CLASS meets off the lobby of the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center on Loyola’s Health Sciences Campus, in an unassuming wing behind a grand piano. One day this spring, six patients are situated around a conference room table, each before a beige ball (the size of a softball) and stacks of supplies: colored markers, pencils, brushes, acrylic paint, stencils. A series of 8-by-11-inch instructional photos are pinned to one of the walls. “The idea of this bead,” says Danyah Subei, Smith’s intern, “is that it will encapsulate your journey and your strength.”
Together, the group will cover their spheres with clay model magic and some glue, then decorate them however they see fit. Later, they’ll string the ersatz beads together (not unlike a Rosary) and display it in one of the hospital’s corridors, a public installation of hope in an institution intent on cultivating it. The group is tentative to start, but they quickly find a calm rhythm. Smith hops in herself, mixing blue and green paint on a Styrofoam plate. A little splatters on her check; nobody seems to mind.
Smith, the medical center’s full-time art therapist, was hired six years ago to revamp Loyola’s art therapy program. Depending on the client, it can take different shapes: there are bedside classes for the long term admitted, weekly art psychotherapy appointments for patients in the midst of treatment, pediatric art therapy for kids adjusting to the hospital atmosphere, and larger group classes (like this one) focused on mental well-being. Thanks to a gift from the Zoë Foundation for Infusion Art Therapy, Smith’s services—drawing, painting, collaging, sculpting—are free of charge.
A serious illness, and a cancer diagnosis in particular, can trigger a wave of complicated emotions in patients: anxiety, depression, grief, anger, hopelessness. Self-esteem can sink. According to Smith, art making offers the afflicted “a way to explore emotions that words just don’t have the capacity to explain, or that people don’t yet have the words for.”
It’s also been shown to reduce a person’s cortisol levels, the hormone most connected to stress. Simply setting aside dedicated time for self-expression, meanwhile, gives a person a modicum of agency, at a moment when they necessarily feel shaken. Loyola’s sessions are held in the hospital, but usually in spaces that are private and quiet, a test-free zone tucked away from prying (if well-meaning) doctors and nurses. While one’s hands are busy sculpting or drawing, there’s time to share, to ruminate, to laugh and heal.