Things that helped during chemotherapy: art therapy


The things that so far helped me during chemotherapy… mostly weren’t things. Some were recommended, some are things I did before, like yoga or walking.

What really is good: at the oncology centre, they now offer art therapy sessions for chemo patients. It’s each week, and it is so interesting and vivid.

We were 3 for the start: me, a fellow patient, and Carmen, the art therapist. It was luxury really, to have this small class for start, in a personal atmosphere. “Art therapy, it’s not about creating beautiful paintings”, Carmen explained, “but about expressing the emotions you are feeling in images, and work with them.”

So we started – the first image for me was a way to arrive at the page, and get a first feel for the colors.

From process, we painted individually, and then talked with Carmen about the image, and what it reflects, and getting some guidance / suggestion for possible next steps, or for the situation and its interpretation. The painting, it is both an expression, and a meta-level of the now.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the session, but right at that first day already, I became more aware of the images/thoughts/worries I have in mind. For example, we talked about cancer, and I described it as ghost-illness: you can’t see it, it is there, it is dangerous, but it doesn’t hurt until a later stage. Or maybe it even isn’t there anymore after the operation at all. You can track tumors, but there is no way to track single cancer cells… so you do this therapy, based on numbers: 50% chance that it will return without treatment. But also: 50% chance that it wouldn’t, that I am healthy, that the therapy is just pain without reason. Only you don’t know.)

“Maybe I should try to paint that ghostlyness in the next session”, I wondered. To which Carmen suggested: “Or you could shift the focus: Paint your healthy cells. Think of the energy they have, the energy you have”. That line, it somehow moved onto a deeper level, like a gong: my healthy cells. The healthy me.


This theme of focus and health continued in the second session. Carmen started with a “dream-journey”, inviting us to close our eyes, and imagine a piece of earth that we then can turn into our garden. And then walk through it, and fill the garden to our delight and needs: with flowers, with a water source, with a place to sit, with animals… “you can pick all you want, and it will be there. and if you realize that you picked something that doesn’t fit, you can recycle it, then it turns to earth again”.

It was such a good symbolism, which translated into a larger view for me: “You can create your own garden. You can create your days, the place you live, your life. It’s up to you. Imagine.“

Then we turned to painting – with open door, the spring breeze moving in. this feeling of openness. I tried acryl colors, and first did two smaller paintings to get into painting, to connect with the brush and the paper and the colors, and get into the images. The first turned out in dark colors. Then I tried a light one, an imagine of the dream-garden. “I think you need larger papers”, Carmen noticed. And gave me a large sheet. First I didn’t know where to start, then I started with a tree. Then the sky, then the ground. Then what? I wondered. I thought of the dream garden, and from there, the painting developed its own energy and direction.


I tried a rose bush that didn’t turn out, then I realized it actually might be my body – the rose structures made me think of blood lines. Which lead to: me. I tried to paint me in the garden, connected to it, to the life energy of spring that is now coming from the ground and from the sky. I tried a photo, it’s attached.

When I felt it was complete, Carmen asked me about the elements, inviting me to “speak” for them. “What does the color yellow say?”
It was suprising, I immediately knew the answer: the light at the horizon, the happiness in the air.
“And the 2 squares on the right?” – “that’s .. a city?” and then I realized: “it might be the hospital here actually”.

Revisiting it later, I understood those 2 diffuse areas that I painted,, and that made me first feel: “oh no, I messed up the painting…” – but looking at them now, they are essential parts and symbols: they are the  turbulences of the illness. The left one is the operation wound that is healing, and the right one is the turbulence of the chemo-therapy, brought to my body from outside, from the technical side of the world – but that’s also an area that is opening, and reaching out.

It was so touching to learn about me through this image, and I am still moved by it. Carmen invited me to spend time with the painting, maybe even write a story, let the elements in it talk: the tree, the birds in the sky, the lines of color. I brought the painting home and kept it around the office, and it accompanied me through the week. So good.

And another element that touched me: you hear the dialogue of the fellow patients, too, so that adds different experiences and views. Plus, there is the feeling of time and space for emotions and feelings and reflections.

Today is the next art class, and I look forward to it, and also am curious for the themes it will bring to the surface.

Art Therapy Links
In addition to this personal note, some link on art therapy:

  • Top 50 Art Therapy Blogs: “Art therapy uses art to heal people of all ages, and can improve the emotional, mental, and physical health. If you want to know more about how art therapy can help you, read the free blogs listed below.”
  • Art Therapy Helps Breast Cancer Patients: “A recent report reveals that women with breast cancer receiving radiation treatment experienced improved mental health, physical health, and an overall higher quality of life after 5 sessions of art therapy.”
  • And a blog of an art therapist, with a podcast and a bloglist in the sidebar: Art Therapy Spot



The Other “Things”, Blogging & Links:
This is the second “things that helped” post, the first is: Things that helped during chemotherapy: Walking. I will continue this series with the other “things” that help me get through chemotherapy step by step, and look for articles and links, too. One thing that helped to get through the cycles of chemotherapy definitely is: blogging. Here is a longer blog post on how things are currently, the post also leads back to the start of my diagnosis: “Intense, or: anger, hope, spring & the larger picture”


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