Research is pointing towards art therapy as a helpful alternative coping resource for cancer patients. Art therapy helps patients confront their emotions, increase well-being and reduce stress and anxiety. Art therapy is not about creating a masterpiece, but instead about offering a means of communication to explore confused or difficult thoughts and feelings.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a type of emotional support that can be used to help people and families faced with challenging situations or circumstances. The therapy involves working with art materials alongside a trained art therapist to express underlying feelings and emotions such as anger, fear, sadness or isolation.

Art therapy is being used by a wide range of people—from those experiencing life-limiting illnesses, such as cancer, to individuals suffering from mental health problems, eating disorders, relationships problems and even learning disabilities.

Art therapy can take place in groups or in one-on-one sessions, and needs to be conducted in a supportive environment. Art therapy sessions can last up to 60 minutes or longer, depending on the size, with sessions happening regularly for a certain amount of time—either weeks or months. When a patient participates in this sort of therapy, the art therapist will not teach them how to draw or paint.

Art therapists encourage patients to use art as a means of developing confidence and self-awareness.

It’s important to feel comfortable and safe when participating in art therapy as it may release powerful, and sometimes uncomfortable, emotions. Establishing a strong means of communication with the art therapist will ensure the process is positive and supportive.

What Happens During Art Therapy?

Art therapists may ask clients to create drawings or paintings that represent a problem they are facing, or an emotion they are feeling. Alternatively, patients may be asked to create sculptures, collages and other three-dimensional objects that represent a feeling they are experiencing or a challenge they are facing.

Art therapists may then ask patients to talk about their creation and ways to work through the emotion or problem. In a group setting, patients may provide others with feedback on their work and support.

“One patient who was extremely frustrated in her recovery from breast cancer said that before art therapy, she was always to avoid her feelings. She told me she’s much better now at exploring her feelings and working through issues she was afraid to deal with before.” —Kiene Landry, Art Therapist

Benefits of Art Therapy for Cancer Patients

There is no research that points towards art therapy as a means of treating cancer itself. But people living with cancer, their partners and family members have used the therapy to help cope with their emotions.

Art therapy may bring positive effects as it does not require verbal communication. For this reason, the therapy is accessible to cancer patients and their families who feel uncomfortable with conventional touch or talk therapies.

Studies on Art Therapy for Cancer

Studies are showing that art therapy can lead to improved cancer symptoms and the development of effective coping mechanisms.

In a review of 12 different studies on art therapy’s effect on cancer symptoms in 2010, it was found that the therapy helped to improve feelings of distress and depression, along with fatigue and general health.

A separate study on women diagnosed with breast cancer found that the therapy helped to increase their ability to cope, improving their quality of life.

Women in this study reported that the nonverbal aspect of art therapy along with the physical expression helped to support verbal communication of their thoughts and feelings with loved ones. In the same study, partners of these women found that the increased verbal communication of anger, fear and sadness helped to reduce their feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Where to Find Art Therapy

Art therapists work in a wide range of settings—from hospitals and hospices to nursing homes and private practices. It’s important to work with a qualified art therapist, as they have undergone postgraduate training. Talk to your doctor to find out if there are any available art therapists in your area.

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View Author and Sources

  1. Cancer Research UK, "Art Therapy." Retrieved from: Accessed on March 16, 2018.
  2. Canadian Cancer Society, "Art Therapy." Retrieved from: Accessed on March 16, 2018.
  3. City of Hope, "For Cancer Patients, Art Therapy is More Than Just Painting Pictures." Retrieved from:". Accessed on March 16, 2018.

Last modified: September 1, 2018