Art Therapy for Chronic Cancer-Induced Pain

art therapy

When you’re in pain, what do you reach for? Painkillers? Heating pads? Numbing creams?

How about a paintbrush?

Art therapy is widely accepted as a supportive therapy for cancer patients, but it is mostly used to help patients cope with emotional complications. Since the therapy is seen as a way to help patients tap into hard-to-express feelings, the American Cancer Society specifically recommends it for patients who are dealing with anxiety, fear or depression.

However, some patients may also use it to help cope with cancer-induced pain.

A new study suggests that art therapy can help patients manage chronic discomfort – and in turn, improve their quality of life. Compared to other health conditions like heart disease or kidney failure, chronic pain has one of the most severe negative impacts on quality of life, so it’s natural for one to improve along with the other.

The study, which appears in the first 2013 issue of Arts & Health, surveyed a small segment of patients from a Canadian hospital. Participants only needed to meet two qualifying criteria: They needed to be in persistent pain, and they needed to be actively creating art. Their art could be anything from poetry or painting to woodwork or photography.

When asked to rate their pain on a scale of zero (no pain) to 10 (extreme pain), patients reported an average score of 5.56. Most of the patients had been experiencing this discomfort for at least five to 10 years; seven had been coping with it for at least a decade.

Only one patient – whose pain originated from a poorly done surgery – said that the pain did not in some way make it difficult to pursue artistic therapy. Most patients had to creatively work their art around limitations like fatigue, lack of focus, and trouble staying comfortable in a single position for an extended period of time.

However, as the patients continued to make to creative arts a regular part of their lives, they indicated that it was their preferred way to escape from the cancer experience.

“On the suggestion of my physiotherapist,” one patient wrote, “I began drawing and painting as a distraction from pain.”

Another began waving wool mats to fill the periods late at night where pain kept them awake.

“It feels so much better to pick up my work and hook through the night when I can’t sleep and have to move around,” the patient recorded on their questionnaire.

More than a Distraction

Although it’s a healthy and highly effective distraction mechanism, art therapy serves several other healing purposes. For some patients, it’s a way to feel fulfilled; for others, it’s a way to create a connection to others in the face of a highly isolating disease.

Perhaps better than most, mesothelioma patients understand the isolating nature of pain. Most mesothelioma patients experience a dull, building pain in their chest or abdomen. This pain prevents many patients from performing essential duties – much less attending social outings with friends.

In the study, many patients felt that their art helped them cope with feelings of loneliness.

“There are so many social stigmas and barriers associated with chronic pain,” one patient wrote. “It’s hard not to lose hope and courage, but creative endeavors … can change your outlook and make you feel less isolated.”

Art therapy also serves as a way for patients to take control of their lives during a time when everything seems so uncertain. Once again, mesothelioma patients experience this on an elevated level; the aggressive, treatment-resistant nature of their cancer can be especially hard to cope with.

“You need to accept your condition enough to move on – not to the point where you give up and give in,” one artist noted.

This acceptance may be key to healing, research indicates. Several studies agree that patients who can actively accept the presence of their pain have higher levels of emotional, physical and social functioning. And by finding meaning in their experiences, patients can focus on the broader scope of recovery – not just the part where they have to get through pain to get better.

Have you heard of art therapy before? Would you try it? Have you tried it already? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook.


After graduating with an English degree from Southeastern University in 2010, Faith Franz came on board as a health and wellness writer for The Mesothelioma Center.

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