Beyond Words: How Making Art Can Help People with Cancer

Acrylic painting by an MSK patient

This acrylic painting on canvas paper was created by a patient during MSK's art therapy open studio.

Making art can be a powerful form of therapy. It can be especially beneficial for people with cancer, helping them to cope better with physical symptoms while providing relief from the anxiety, fear, or depression that may come with a diagnosis.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we offer several ways for patients to cultivate their creativity, including through a variety of workshops offered by our Art Expressions program that provide guided instruction from practicing artists. In addition, a weekly open studio led by licensed art therapist Deborah Rice provides a supportive environment in which patients can make art and build community.

“It’s truly magical what goes on,” says Ms. Rice of the open studio. “Everyone is in their own creative process. Some people talk while they work; others don’t. And yet there’s this collective sense of healing that comes from the artwork and from being together.”

Here we share the words and works of three patients who participated in MSK art programs — and what they’ve discovered along the way.

Barbara: Finding Choice

I didn’t start to paint until I was diagnosed with cancer. I saw a flier for Art Expressions, spoke with the program’s coordinator, and registered for a couple of classes. Presented with a dire diagnosis and prognosis, I think that I would have lost my mind without the art classes, which kept me focused on making something beautiful. I consider art making and the Art Expressions program to be as integral a part of my treatment as chemo or radiation.

I like to paint scenes or moments from my life when I’ve been completely happy. For me, painting is a temporary respite from troubles. Unlike my cancer, each painting I start presents problems and challenges that I can solve. It’s a situation in which I have choices — choices dealing with color, line, form, composition, perspective, mood, and execution.

Jane: Finding Permanence

I have an art background. I’m an illustrator and designer, and I teach art at a college in New York, which is maybe why I didn’t do art therapy at first. But then I was at a luncheon for work, and I got to talking to someone who is an art therapist, and she told me that a lot of artists think, No, I’m an artist, I can do my own art, but that in reality the therapy can be extremely valuable.

The first day I went was the day I had my end-of-treatment MRI to see how well the chemo worked. I’m really into lettering, and that day I lettered this beautiful poem by Denise Levertov, which one of MSK’s wonderful chaplains had shared with me. It was a poem about letting go. In my professional work, I focus on digital illustration and other media that is somewhat impermanent. But that day I said to myself, I need to turn toward what I’m scared of, so I chose the acrylic, the most permanent of all media. I loved playing with the textures. I loved watching how the acrylic behaved. Now I do most of my art therapy work in acrylic.

I remember going to the open studio another time, and it had been a difficult day for me. I let the brush roll around the page, and then I painted these really broad, definitive strokes. At one point, I was stabbing the page with the brush. I just allowed whatever I was feeling to move through the work. That piece really resonated with people. After that, I pushed through something. The work held all these different experiences for me.

Ellen: Finding Purpose

When I first learned that I would need a bone marrow transplant, it was clear to me that the tools for my hobby — designing and making custom sterling-silver jewelry — would not be acceptable in my new sterile environment. I was devastated beyond words. How was I going to get through? 

My husband gave me a piece of advice when this all began. He asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” I didn’t know. His response: “You eat an elephant one bite at a time.” So that became how we approached my treatment: Taking it apart, one bite at a time.

Every day of the transplant was a challenge. One of the ways I met them was by escaping to the Patient Recreation Center whenever my new immune system would allow. I participated in every activity they offered. One day a staff member gave a demonstration on doodling. It was creativity at its best for me. It reminded me of being taught as a child that everything in the world is based on 12 basic shapes and that anyone can draw anything based on those shapes. And so I began to doodle, one shape at a time. Being creative helped me to go deeper than words. It helped me to express the dialogue that was going on in my head.

When I returned home after four months in the hospital, I began the process of redefining myself and my new normal. Doodling became a big part of that. I began to share my story and my art in workshops with the purpose of showing people that no matter what you face, big or small, if you take it apart, you can do it. These days, I create murals using my doodling technique, in hospitals and in other spaces where it can help to improve the patient experience. I also donate my custom creations to charities that support people’s well-being when they are facing a catastrophic illness.

Art Therapy & Workshops

Learn more about the art therapy open studio and the Art Expressions workshops, which are available to current and former Memorial Sloan Kettering patients.