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Art therapy at Massey offers a colorful perspective on healing

In early 2019, Keziah Gehring, a patient access representative for Massey's Department of Radiation Oncology, teamed up with Massey social worker Freda Wilkins to host a group painting session for cancer patients and survivors. The combination of creativity, mindfulness and connection provided the participants with a therapeutic experience. Here is Gehring's testimony on the event and the positive feedback she received:

The beauty of creating and enjoying art it is that art is entirely subjective. Today’s art is self-expression. If a painting means something to the viewer, whether it seems ugly or charming, the artist is successful. Art is meant to evoke an emotion or a positive reaction. Most of the time the artist felt something deeply. When those emotions are linked through the painting and out onto its viewer, the art becomes art: an expression of beauty.

On the last Monday of March, Freda Wilkins and I combined painting and mindfulness to hold our first art therapy session at VCU Massey Cancer Center at Stony Point. Freda is a social worker here at VCU. On the last Monday of every month, she leads a support group for women living with cancer. She skillfully provides an environment for patients to talk, breathe, focus on the present and let their stress slip away. It was Freda’s idea to introduce a new mode for their therapy sessions by recruiting me to teach a paint course. I work in Massey's Department of Radiation Oncology at Stony Point but I'm an artist as well.

I’ve found that painting is a wonderful escape. It creates a space where I can relax, focus entirely on one thing and let any tension dissipate as the hours fall away. When I introduced myself to the women, I explained that the purpose of this paint night was to create an outlet for their stress; one that they could take home and utilize in their daily lives.

There were about five women in this first group because of limited space in the small library we were using as our workshop. They faced each other. Blank canvases and cups bristling with paint brushes linked these strangers together. As they loaded their brushes with paint and began spreading the colors across the canvases, I noticed right away that they were eager to talk. Some approached this new art experience with trepidation, asking “is this the right shape? A good brush? The right amount of water?”, but as time wore on, they began to talk more about themselves and every one of their cancer stories. The painting took on a sort of unconscious motion, it was something to do with their hands that let them open up emotionally in a way that was comfortable. They didn’t always have to keep eye contact, they could talk about themselves and pepper their conversations with comical comments on their art that seemed to lighten the mood here and there.

In a way, I was learning too. I think it’s easy as someone working in a medical setting to become absorbed in the clinical aspect of the situation: the diagnosis, treatments, scans and appointments. I found that I had forgotten about the emotional impact on the patients themselves. One woman spoke about being diagnosed, getting divorced and losing her mother all in the same year; another cried as she talked about her cancer story. She had just been diagnosed and was scared. Another woman talked about what she called “scanxiety”, a fear that the cancer would be back when she went in for her regular scans and not knowing if her remission was permanent. I was truly swept away by the realness of it all; the raw emotions, the fear and the fact that many of these women had looked death in the face and had been able to walk away. By comparing their stories, I think these women realized this too.

Research shows that art is a mind-body therapy. Art stimulates a release of dopamine as the patient uses and explores their own creativity. For cancer patients struggling with anxiety and depression, the extra amount of dopamine is beneficial. The act of creating itself, helps patients to direct their fear and anxiety into something innovative and wholesome. For many of the women, it gave them a sense of control when they needed it the most.  

Massey radiation oncologist Dr. Todd Adams states “cancer amplifies any problem or fear that a person already has.” Dr. Adams believes there is value in helping patients find ways to channel their emotions. The combination of art therapy and mindfulness could be the platform that helps patients attain an overall sense of well-being as we treat them. Introducing patients who struggle with anxiety to art therapy can provide them with a lifelong tool for coping.

Hearing feedback from the art therapy session has been vastly rewarding. One of the women who was dealing with extreme anxiety told me that she and her daughter are now painting together; creating flowers and beach scenes on canvas to hang about their house. “It gives me something to do with my hands that helps me keep my mind off of things,” she told me. Art has become a way that she can both connect with her daughter and have an outlet for her stress. And art is something she can do at home, on her own time.

Encouraged by the women’s enthusiasm, Freda and I are looking to expand this venture. We are planning quarterly sessions in a space that will allow us to serve more patients. We are also hoping to receive funding and donations for art supplies. Personally, I'm excited about being able to contribute to this therapeutic development. I think these art therapy sessions have the potential to gain momentum and become a valuable resource that help many of our patients.  

At the end of our paint session, we all took the quarter of the flower that we had painted and placed them together, creating two whole flowers, each canvas with varying colors, shapes and techniques. All of the women there had unique stories to tell and different problems that they were struggling with, but taking a step back, all of these women were united in their strength in fighting cancer. Looking at the work they had done, I felt the emotion they had put into their pieces and I was honored just to be a witness to it all.

The next group painting sessions will be held on July 22 and October 28 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Derbyshire Baptist Church in Henrico, VA. If you are interested in participating, please contact Freda Wilkins at 804-305-2709 or freda.wilkins@vcuhealth.org.

Written by: Massey Communications Office

Posted on: July 15, 2019