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Art therapy

Art therapy offers a way to explore and express difficult thoughts and feelings.

Art therapy is a form of emotional support that can be helpful to people who are struggling with difficult and challenging situations. It involves using visual art materials with a trained art therapist to create pictures or objects that have personal meanings. It may help release bottled up emotions, and give new understanding and perspectives.  

Art therapy is not about creating a fantastic piece of art. You don’t need to be able to draw or paint.

Art therapy is used by people with a variety of problems including:

  • chronic or life limiting illnesses, including cancer
  • mental health problems, including depression and addiction
  • relationship problems
  • eating disorders
  • learning disabilities

How art therapy might help

For people living with cancer, art therapy offers a way of communicating and exploring confused or difficult thoughts and feelings. It can encourage positive feelings too, as people enjoy the control and expressive qualities of making art. It is supportive to share experiences with a trained art therapist and connect with other people who are in similar situations. 

Art therapy may be very helpful for people who feel uncomfortable with touch or talk therapies. And it can be helpful in supporting families and friends affected by cancer.

Although the scientific evidence for art therapy is still limited, many health professionals think it may:

  • encourage you to express your emotions and help improve your relationships with other people
  • help you adjust to a changing body image
  • encourage you to be creative and self confident
  • help take your mind off pain or discomfort
  • help to control anxiety, depression and low self esteem

What art therapy involves

You don’t need experience to take part in, or benefit from, art therapy.

Art therapy can take many forms, including:

  • drawing
  • painting
  • sculpture
  • collage
  • craftwork
  • using tools such as iPads, smartphones and cameras

On your first visit, your therapist will ask you questions to better understand your needs and expectations. They will design a plan to suit you. This will include how often you will meet, how long each session will be and the purpose of each.

You can have art therapy alone with a therapist or in a group. They can last up to 60 minutes or longer depending on this. Therapy sessions can take place regularly for a fixed number of weeks or months.

Your therapist won't teach you to draw or paint. They will encourage you to use art to explore your feelings, develop your own confidence and self awareness. This could improve your wellbeing and quality of life.

Your relationship with the art therapist is important. They are responsible for creating a safe environment for you to work in. This means you can express strong emotions and share personal concerns.

Therapy might bring up some powerful, and at times, uncomfortable feelings. But if you do this in a safe environment with the support of a trained therapist it is usually a positive process.

Research into art therapy in cancer care

There have been studies into art therapy for people with cancer.

There was a review in 2010 of 12 different studies on art therapy for managing cancer symptoms. It found that it helped improve feelings of distress and depression, tiredness and general health.

A US study found that therapy helped manage symptoms like tiredness, but did not help with sickness.

A study in Sweden on women having radiotherapy for breast cancer found that art therapy can help to increase the ability to cope and improve quality of life.

A UK survey in 2013 reported that 92% of people with cancer who had used art therapy found it helpful. It concluded that the non verbal, physical and visual aspects of art therapy helped add to verbal support.

Two studies researched people having bone marrow transplants. People said that art therapy helped them share uncomfortable feelings, and gave support when they felt anxious and far away from loved ones.

Other studies have shown art therapy to have no effect.

A clinical trial in 2006 looked into a type of group therapy called mindfulness based art therapy (MBAT).

The study suggested that it could help people with cancer:

  • control their symptoms
  • improve their quality of life

There was a study in 2001 on children having painful procedures such as bone marrow biopsy or lumbar puncture. The children who had art therapy were less distressed and better able to cooperate during the procedures.

A Cochrane Review in 2003 called ‘Interventions for improving communication with children and adolescents about their cancer’ included studies on art therapy. The reviewers said that more research is needed in this area.

We need more research and larger studies to know for sure how well art therapy works to help children and young people with cancer.

The cost of art therapy

Art therapy is available free of charge in some leading cancer centres and hospitals in the UK.

Ask your nurse or doctor if this is available on the ward or centre where you have treatment. If it isn't, they might know of voluntary organisations that offer it free or at a low cost.

You can also contact the British Association of Art Therapists. The special interest group Creative Response might know of art therapists in your area.

Finding an art therapist

Art therapists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, hospices and nursing homes.

​It is important to make sure your art therapist is properly qualified.

Qualified art therapists have post graduate training. The title ‘art therapist’ or ‘art psychotherapist’ is also protected by law.

Trained therapists must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) to use either of these titles.

The best way to find a reliable therapist is to:

  • Contact the HCPC and ask for a list of reputable art therapists in your area
  • Contact the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) and ask for a list of private art therapists
  • If you have the name of an art therapist, check the HCPC or BAAT website to see if they are listed on there

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

There are a number of different organisations that art therapists can join. The BAAT and HPC can give you details of registered art therapists.

The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) is the professional organisation for art therapists in the UK. It has its own Code of Ethics of Professional Practice, 20 regional groups, a European section and an international section. It keeps a comprehensive directory of qualified art therapists in the UK.

24–27 White Lion Street
London N1 9PD

Phone: 020 7686 4216
Email: info@baat.org

An independent, UK health regulator that keeps a register of qualified therapists. It sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, art therapists and drama therapists.

184 Kennington Park Road
London
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

Last reviewed: 
03 Jun 2016
  • What research evidence is there for the use of art therapy in the management of symptoms in adults with cancer? A systematic review
    MJM Wood and others
    Psycho-Oncology 2011;20(2): pages 135-145

  • Relieving Symptoms in Cancer: Innovative Use of Art Therapy
    N Nainis and others
    Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 2006;31(2): pages 162-169

  • Art therapy's contribution to the psychological care of adults with cancer: A survey of therapists and service users in the UK
    MJM Wood and others
    International Journal of Art Therapy, 2013/06;18(2): pages 42-53

  • Art therapy during radiotherapy – A five-year follow-up study with women diagnosed with breast cancer
    I Öster and others
    The Arts in Psychotherapy, 2014 2;41(1): pages 36-40

  • Supportive care with art therapy, for patients in isolation during stem cell transplant
    A Agnese and others
    Palliative Supportive Care, 2012 Mar 22;10: pages 91-98

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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