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Art therapy: helping families cope with cancer

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Winter


Engaging in artwork provides a welcome distraction for patients and families facing devastating illness.

Displayed on the mantel of the Rodriguez home in Fairfield County is a large painting that members of the family of four created during an art therapy session at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven Health. The painting is of a tree with the family members’ handprints as its leaves. “We wanted to create something we could display in our home as a daily reminder of our family,” says Ann Rodriguez.

Reinforcing close bonds of love is especially important for the family right now. Ann’s husband, Joe, has terminal stage 4 stomach cancer, and is no longer receiving treatment. (The family’s real name has been changed to protect their identities.)

“This artwork reminds us every day that our lives will always be interwoven, no matter where we are,” Ann Rodriguez says. “It’s a reminder that we were once all together physically and will always be together in spirit.”

At Smilow, art therapy is available to the children and families of people who are receiving palliative care. It’s also available to the patients themselves.

The program is designed to help patients and their loved ones bond, as well as cope with fear and grief. Using tools and media including pencils, pastels, markers, acrylic paint, collage, and clay, art therapist Elizabeth J. Ferguson, M.A., helps patients and their families express their feelings. “The reality is that no one is dealing with their illness alone,” Ferguson says. “Every single person in the family has to deal with this illness for a long time to come.”

Engaging in artwork can also offer patients and their children a welcome distraction. “Art therapy gives children of palliative care patients something fun and productive to do when doctors are talking to their adult family members,” says Ferguson.

Physicians at Smilow welcome the art therapy program. “The palliative care team comes in to collaborate with the oncologist and be there to support the patient and family as they cope with their cancer. Art therapy is a key part of this interdisciplinary support, allowing us to fully care for the person rather than a patient with a disease,” says Jennifer M. Kapo, M.D., associate professor of medicine (geriatrics), and chief of palliative care at Yale Medicine Cancer Center.

The art therapy program was created thanks to a donation from Christine Moog, a book designer who teaches at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. Moog is a Yale University graduate who believes in the therapeutic value of art. Her father died from cancer, and once she became a parent, she wanted to help create a support system for other families struggling with cancer.

“There is a kind of release in nondirected art therapy,” Moog says. “Letting the inside of one’s thoughts and feelings be on the outside on paper or in clay provides a way of working through issues that can be too painful or too deep to access otherwise.”

Programs like this are vital, she says, because most cancer funding goes to research, and families experience psychological and social issues as they say goodbye to a loved one.

For the Rodriquez family, the art therapy program has been especially meaningful for their 8-year-old son, Joseph. “My daughter is 1, so she will not remember her father,” says Ann Rodriguez. “My son says that he wants to inherit the canvas so he can always have it, but that he will share with his sister.”