Every June, at our monthly support group meeting, we decorate luminarias for our Relay for Life event in August. Luminarias are the bags named in honor or memory of loved ones who’ve had cancer. Traditionally, the bags are placed around our high school track, and at dusk votive candles are lit inside each bag.
I’m not sure if anyone in my support group realized last week’s meeting came on the heels of National Art Therapy Week and how appropriate our activity was in light of this fact. What? You didn’t know there was a week dedicated to art therapy? Well, neither did I! It runs from June 1 - 7, and was established in 2003.
Regardless of the national observance of art therapy, up until now I had avoided it like the plague. I’m one of those people who can barely draw a stick figure, much less anything else recognizable. I mentioned this to the group at large.
Undaunted, our artist-in-residence (and long-time member) assured me that nothing in nature has a straight line. Hmm. Can’t say I’d ever noticed that before, but she’s right. Still, I sat there for half an hour – frozen. I had four blank bags in front of me, to honor those nearest and dearest to me who’ve already fought the battle. How could I translate the sea of emotion I was feeling when I thought of them into something that made sense on a paper bag?
That’s where I was missing the point. I was trying to create a message that made sense to someone else. Kind of like working from the outside in. What I needed to do was express my loved one’s essence from the inside out and let that expression flow in whatever way it wanted to. I needed to go within to discover what needed to be said. The only way to do that was to quiet my mind, stop thinking about it, and start doing it.
Once I was able to stop the incessant chatter inside my head, everything began to flow. Soon I was lost in the project. I was oblivious to everyone else, yet enjoying the community of all of us working together toward a common cause. The time flew; two hours were gone in the blink of an eye. We were amazed. Our artist-in-residence and long-time member (who is also very wise) simply said, “Art quiets a restless mind.” Indeed. I felt more at peace after those two hours than I have in ages.
The project we worked on last week certainly wasn’t true art therapy. It really was about community, sharing, giving back, and remembering loved ones. We simply used an artistic project as our vehicle.
Professional Art Therapists are quick to inform us that art therapy is not “arts and crafts” to see who can make the best use of construction paper and glitter. In a professional sense, art therapy is a means by which a patient can reach deep inside on a quest of self discovery in a therapeutic setting. During the process, something tangible is created that speaks of the patient’s innermost identity.
Art therapy falls under an umbrella known as Creative Arts Therapy. There are actually many mediums of creative expression used in therapy – dance and movement, poetry, drama and photography, to name a few. Many studies have shown that creative arts therapy is beneficial to cancer patients. Specifically, creative arts therapy has been proven to help patients cope with anxiety and fear as well as the profound anger and grief we must learn to deal with.
Many cancer centers offer complimentary therapy to their breast cancer patients. If you have the opportunity to try a creative means of self-discovery, I encourage you to do so. You might be pleasantly surprised.