The theme of this issue of Leap is how cancer stories help us cope with disease. Telling stories is a central human trait; for millennia our ancestors sat around campfires and repeated the narratives that helped them make sense of their experiences. They passed on crucial elements of our collective identity to us. One program offered through Alberta Health Services Cancer Care builds on the idea that narratives and other forms of expression can help people cope.
In Edmonton at the Cross Cancer Institute, it’s called the “Arts in Medicine” program, and at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre it’s been known as “Healing Through the Creative Arts.”
The general idea behind both of these programs is that expressing yourself through creative outlets can be a very healing process – another way to make sense of your journey and work through the feelings, thoughts, worries and anxieties you might have. In both programs, various creative modalities are used, including expressive writing, journaling, drawing, painting, sculpting, movement to music and vocalization. The instructors are social workers, artists, art therapists and psychologists.
The structure of each program varies but, for example, at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in each of six weekly classes, participants get the opportunity to think about their own life story and map it out in various ways, from drawing out a lifeline of key events, to moving to music in a manner that represents various feelings. They keep a journal of thoughts and feelings that can include diary-style entries, poems, stories and drawings.
The programs are not only a venue to create various forms of expression, but also a safe place to share the experience of creating; afterwards, exercise group members have the opportunity to discuss what came up for them in thinking about and participating in the creative activity. For example, if people were drawing a lifeline of key life events, they might share how thinking of these brought back certain feelings or memories that were important in creating the identity and values they have today. Participants might paint a picture expressing what it felt like to be diagnosed with cancer, and subsequently discuss how elements of that experience manifest in their drawings.
Not only is this typically a fulfilling exercise, there is research to back up the benefits of creative expression. The best-researched creative avenue is expressive writing. In the 1980s, James Pennebaker at the University of Texas was the first to measure the effects of single sessions of expressive writing of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings. He found that there were significant benefits to expressive writing, particularly when it involved the construction of a coherent story together with the expression of negative emotions, which many patients will often keep to themselves rather than express out loud.
Outcomes have shown improvement within this framework in the general population, with people reporting improved physical health, psychological well-being, physiological functioning (such as improved immune function) and generally improved day-to-day functioning.
One study that looked at the benefits of expressive writing for breast cancer patients found that women who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about breast cancer over four sessions reported significantly decreased negative physical symptoms compared to those who just wrote about the facts of their illness. The expressive writing group also had significantly fewer medical appointments for cancer-related problems.
So the recommendation is to sit down, relax and open up to your creative juices. Whether you join an arts program at a cancer centre or elsewhere, or write, draw, dance and sing about your feelings in the privacy of your own home, it can do you good in many ways.