Art Therapy for Cancer Patients: A Therapist’s Perspective

Elissa Bromberg Creative Arts Therapist

In my last article, I shared the results of a new study about art therapy for chronic pain. Today, Licensed Creative Arts Therapist and New York University art therapy internship supervisor Elissa Bromberg weighs in on the topic.

“In Western medicine, the mind and body are typically treated separately,” Bromberg explains from her studio in New York. “But thankfully, it’s slowly becoming more common to integrate the two. And art therapy is a powerful way to do just that – it works on so many different levels.”

As we saw in the Arts & Healthstudy, art therapy is an effective tool for relieving cancer-related pain. But Bromberg cites another article – a 2006 piece from the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management – in which researchers found that art therapy improved a number of other cancer symptoms. On the Edmonton Symptom Assessment System, overall scores for fatigue, drowsiness, and even feelings of breathlessness, decreased after patients participated in an art therapy session.

The therapy also helped patients cope with emotional complications. Feelings of tension, anxiety, self-consciousness and misfortune decreased after the sessions, while feelings of security and ease increased.

“Especially in cancer treatment, it’s finally getting recognized that adults really need to process their emotions and find coping resources,” Bromberg shares. “And art therapy is a terrific modality for processing material that’s hard to talk about. The patient may not feel comfortable verbalizing it, but it comes out in the art.”

Patient-led therapy allows the participant to work through whatever is currently bothering them. The beauty of the therapy lies in its flexibility.

While therapists may provide a few cues, Bromberg believes that patients will intuitively direct the therapy wherever they need it to go. They’ll express what they need to express, then assign meaning in whatever way helps them make sense of their situation. The therapist is there to help provide context and clarity.

“They share [their experiences] with us to the best of their abilities, often in art rather than words, and we help them process it,” she explains. “I don’t read their artwork as though I absolutely know what it means. Artistic symbols mean different things to different people. That’s my job – to help patients discover what their symbols mean to them.”

She also believes that it’s part of her job to facilitate the therapy for any patient – regardless of their physical limitations.

“It doesn’t matter if you can’t sit up, or if there are parts of your body you can’t use, or parts that have been immobilized by surgery. There’s always some way to establish a means for them to be able to create,” Bromberg says encouragingly. “If they can’t speak, we’ll find other ways to communicate. If they can’t use their limbs, they can direct me and I’ll be their hands.”

That intuitive communication – the bond between patient and art therapist – is often what helps patients let their guard down enough to tap into buried emotions.

“Some patients want directives, but most patients just want the freedom to play and discover,” Bromberg says. “Sometimes we just make art, and that’s enough.”

Common Themes

Bromberg says that once patients feel safe, their art will bring their subconscious fears to the surface.

“In an inpatient setting, people are often coping with problems related to the current moment. They have anxiety about tests and treatments. They worry what’s coming next, and what life will be like when they get out of the hospital. They’re scared about how their families will take the news – and those tend to be common themes for their art,” Bromberg says.

“In outpatient settings, their perspective shifts. Let’s say you have an individual who was in chemo, and all of the sudden, it’s over. What happens then? They have that whole experience of dealing with mortality, and fears about remission. They also have to adjust to changes in their support structure; often, the people who stood by them through treatment see them differently once they’re a survivor.”

Many times, the patient’s caregivers are invited to attend group sessions with the patient. Bromberg says it’s fairly common for family members to come and process their own feelings about their loved one’s diagnosis.

Group sessions also help patients bond with other patients. She finds that scheduling group sessions during medical treatments can help patients remove some of the dread they associate with their appointments.

“Not that patients ever look forward to chemotherapy, but when they get involved and start socializing with each other, it gives them other things to focus on,” Bromberg explains. “And when you get deeply involved in making art, it becomes – on a certain level – a transcendent experience. Your sense of time hinges. You’re not as aware of other issues, you’re not as upset, and the things that are bothering you seem to ease away.”

Art Therapy as a Humanizing Experience

Whether inpatient or outpatient, individual or group, art therapy also gives oncology patients a way to reconstruct a shattered sense of self.

“I’ve noticed that when patients put their work up on the wall of their hospital room, it becomes a great conversation starter,” Bromberg says. “Doctors and visitors see them as more than just a cancer patient – they’re a person; they’re an artist. It diminishes their powerlessness.”

“Another beautiful thing about art therapy is that it begins with a choice,” she continues. “They get to decide whether they want to work with you or not. When a doctor shows up, they don’t feel like they have the power to say no. They feel like they’re at the mercy of the hospital system. But then, they start creating, and they get that power back. They choose the materials they want to work with, the colors they want to use, and way they want to portray themselves. These may seem like simple things, but for the patients, they’re not.”

Bromberg acknowledges that the process happens slowly. And many patients are hesitant to give it a shot. But for those that do, it’s a powerful catalyst for healing.

“We all made art when we were young, until somebody told us it wasn’t right. That’s a great loss. It’s not about making a masterpiece – it’s just about playing, being in the moment, and discovering little things in a safe and supportive environment. It’s a way to feel cared for and most importantly, to discover what they’re ready to discover.”

Have you tried art therapy? Would you? 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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