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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.

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[Art therapy] helps me to grow, connect with other people, and see the world a little more vividly.
—Sandra Mendenhall, stage three breast cancer survivor

Folks from all walks of life, and in all stages of distress, get referred to art therapy. A lot of Smith’s clients haven’t made art since grade school. Process tends to be more important than the artistic end-product. Magda, a Guatemalan-American with a sharp wit, learned she had cancer while caring for her brother, who himself was dying of prostate cancer at the time. She was initially hesitant about therapies of any kind—mostly, she wanted to hide from the world. A referral to Smith was a gift. “I feel like I can express my pain, my hopes, my ups and downs,” she says. “It’s not like you’re sitting with a therapist. It’s relaxing.”

Across from Magda sits Sandra Mendenhall, a stage three breast cancer survivor. Her interest was piqued when she spotted an art therapy pamphlet hanging in the Bernardin Center. It had been four decades since she last sketched, and her muscle memory was starting to resurface, if less quickly than she would have liked. “I go to church a lot, but you want to do more than just [go to] church,” she says. “This helps me to grow, connect with other people, and see the world a little more vividly.”

There are some patients, though, who seek that satisfaction of completing a project, or for whom art is central to their sense of self. “They want tools to feel empowered,” says Smith, “at a time when a lot of things seem to be outside of their control.”

That’s the case for Leo Flores, a 60-year-old resident of Romeoville, Illinois, who has been fighting leukemia for nine years. As a boy in rural Mexico, art came naturally to Flores; on the plot of land his father farmed, he remembers drawing designs in the mud with a stick after heavy rainfalls. Eventually, he secured a government scholarship to art school, and he’s painted in his spare time ever since.

In Smith’s paint-speckled office, Flores pulls out several of his most recent pieces. They are bright and colorful abstractions, with swirling lines and twisted geometric shapes. He tends to create collections of three to five with the same tones and themes, before pivoting in new directions. One painting, inspired by his own treatment, shows a vaguely Cubist man lying flat on a table. Three doctor-like figures stand behind him, in stoic observation.

In his group therapy sessions at Loyola, surrounded by beginners, Flores revels in the camaraderie. He’s quick with a joke, and isn’t shy about sharing artistic tips. “Art therapy is good in the way that it gets you out of your nest,” he says. “You meet other people. You can experiment.”

After stepping out of the room for half-an-hour, Flores heads back into class, where the bead project is coming into focus. The group has already written down narrative reflections of their personal health care journeys. Janine is busy painting with her sister; having undergone a stem cell transplant 92 days prior, she was proud to be pushing her own boundaries. Magda, on her right, is covered in glue.

Smith circulates, offering compliments and reassurances. Patients can be undeservedly hard on themselves. Here, they just need to open up and try their best.

Subei points to some stencils and letter stamps, hinting how the artists might use the instruments to add texture and detail. Exploring the symbolism of prayer beads in different cultures had been her idea initially. She's grateful to play a small role in her students’ very real recoveries. “I’ve experienced so much grace,” she says. “Way more than I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

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Exploring the Arts

Looking for more? Find out how other members of the Loyola community are living out the Jesuit mission through the arts.