If you’ve ever become completely absorbed in a creative project or felt a little better after singing along to a favorite song, you’ve got some idea of how art can soothe you. Art therapy programs can be even more powerful—especially when it comes to helping cancer patients.
A growing body of research shows art and music therapy can soothe symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients. Many cancer support centers now offer expressive art therapy programs. If you or someone you know is facing a cancer diagnosis, you may want to explore one of these programs.
We all know certain songs can make us feel a certain way, but for cancer patients, singing in a choir can have especially powerful benefits, including improvements to mental health.
Benefits patients and carers
Recent research shows group singing can bring a range of health and well-being benefits, including a feeling of being uplifted, a sense of belonging and feelings of accomplishment, as well as reduced anxiety and depression. Both cancer patients and their carers benefited from choral singing.
Music therapist Catherine Manning says singing in a choir provides a supportive environment where those affected by cancer can find camaraderie. Music therapy, she says, helps cancer patients cope with their diagnosis, treatment side effects and emotional issues like loneliness.
Improves physical and mental well-being
Singing requires deep breathing, and deep breathing (called diaphragmatic breathing) stabilizes blood pressure and supports reoxygenation of organs. “It also calms the nervous system and brings deepened relaxation to the mind,” says Manning.
In various studies, listening to and/or playing music has been found to reduce stress (in part by reducing the stress hormone cortisol) and even reduce the perception of pain. In one study, listening to music was more effective than medication in reducing anxiety before surgery. Group singing has been shown to be particularly effective in boosting the immune system.
Art therapist Elva Palo says art is a powerful vehicle for helping cancer patients express emotions that they struggle to vocalize. “Everyone has the ability to be creative; it’s not reserved for people with special talents,” she says. In mindfulness-based art therapy, the process rather than the final product is the focus.
Boosts mental health
Art therapy can improve mental health by improving blood flow to certain areas of the brain and lowering cortisol. In a 2012 study of women with breast cancer, art therapy combined with a mindfulness-based stress reduction program produced changes in brain activity associated with lower stress and anxiety.
Art may even help reduce physical symptoms in cancer patients. One study found patients who participated in art therapy reported significant reductions in tiredness, pain, lack of appetite and shortness of breath after spending one hour working on an art project of their choice.