A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that art therapy can reduce a broad spectrum of symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients. In the study done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, cancer patients reported significant reductions in eight of nine symptoms measured by the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) after spending an hour working on art projects of their choice.
Fifty patients from the inpatient oncology unit at Northwestern Memorial were enrolled in the study over a four-month period. The ESAS is a numeric scale allowing patients to assess their symptoms of pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, lack of appetite, well-being and shortness of breath. Eight of these nine symptoms improved; nausea was the only symptom that did not change as a result of the art therapy session.
“Cancer patients are increasingly turning to alternative and complementary therapies to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and boost their ability to cope with stress,” says Judith Paice, PhD, RN, director, Cancer Pain Program, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and an author on the study. “We wanted to see if the creative process involved in making art is healing and life-enhancing. Our study provides beginning evidence for the important role art therapy can play in reducing symptoms. Art therapy provides a distraction that allows patients to focus on something positive instead of their health for a time, and it also gives patients something they can control.”
Each art therapy session was individualized and patients were offered a choice of subject matter and media. When participants could not use their hands or were not comfortable using the art materials, the art therapist would do the art making under the direction of the subject or they could look at and discuss photographic images that were assembled into a book. Sessions ranged from light entertaining distraction to investigating deep psychological issues, says Nancy Nainis, MA, ATR, an art therapist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who is the lead author on the study. “We were especially surprised to find the reduction in ‘tiredness’,” says Ms. Nainis. “Several subjects made anecdotal comments that the art therapy had energized them. This is the first study to document a reduction in tiredness as a result of art therapy.”
“Art provides a vehicle for expression,” says Dr. Paice. “It may be preferential to some cancer patients who may be uncomfortable with conventional psychotherapy or those who find verbal expression difficult.”