Art therapy | Cancer Research UK
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What art therapy is

Art therapy is a way of expressing specific emotional or physical issues through art. It is not about creating a fantastic piece of art. You don’t even need to be able to draw or paint.

Art therapy aims to help you express yourself in a safe environment, using art materials in a way that will have a positive effect on your personal growth and development. It may be very helpful for people who feel uncomfortable with touch or talk therapies.

Art therapists believe that being creative helps to heal. They believe that we have emotions and abilities beyond our everyday awareness. They say you can access these through different forms of art therapy.

For many years, art therapy has been recognised as a way of helping people cope with mental illness. Although there is relatively little scientific evidence proving that it helps people with cancer, many health professionals think it may

  • Encourage you to express your emotions, which could help improve your relationship with other people
  • Encourage you to be creative and self confident
  • Help to control anxiety, depression and low self esteem
  • Help take your mind off pain or discomfort

Art therapists work with 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 and behaviour problems in children

Art therapists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. They may work closely with health care professionals such as doctors, nurses, speech therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Registered art therapists must have a degree in art and further training in therapy techniques.


Why people with cancer use art therapy

As with many types of complementary therapy, people with cancer use art therapy to help themselves feel better and more positive. Art therapists promote this type of therapy as a way to help people

  • Express buried emotions
  • Cope with grief
  • Cope with fear, anxiety and depression
  • Achieve a sense of freedom and self confidence

Art therapy can be a safe way for people with cancer and their families to explore emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety about the cancer and treatment. Some adults and children find it easier to express difficult emotions and painful times through being creative, rather than trying to talk things through. There is evidence to support some of these benefits. But there is no evidence to suggest that art therapy will help to treat or cure cancer.


What art therapy involves

You don’t need experience in art to take part in or benefit from art therapy. Art therapy can take many forms, including

  • Drawing, painting and sculpture work
  • Dance and creative movement
  • Drama and poetry
  • Photography
  • Looking at and evaluating other people’s artwork

On your first visit, the art therapist will ask several questions about your problems or illness. They will then work with you to design a programme of therapy that suits your particular needs, problems and expectations. This includes how often you have therapy and the length of each session. 

Art therapy sessions can last anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes. Your therapist may encourage you to do some artwork at home between sessions. You may have regular therapy for weeks or months. Some people may take part in group art therapy sessions, rather than one to one appointments.

Your therapist will not teach you to draw or paint. They will encourage you to use art to explore your feelings, develop your own confidence and be more self aware. The thinking is that this will enhance your general wellbeing and quality of life. So your relationship with the art therapist is important. Your therapist is responsible for creating a safe and interesting setting for you to work in. This can mean that over time you’re able to express powerful emotions that would otherwise stay bottled up. Therapy may bring up some very powerful and at times uncomfortable feelings. But if you do this in a safe environment with the support of a professionally trained art therapist it is usually a very positive process.


Research into art therapy in cancer care

Studies have used art therapy for people with cancer. Research has looked at using art therapy in the following areas.

Art therapy for cancer symptoms

A review in 2010 looked at all the studies that researched art therapy for cancer symptoms. 12 different studies were included. The symptoms included psychological symptoms, some physical symptoms and some looked at the meaning of experiences of art therapy for people who took part. The researchers found that art therapy seemed to give some improvement in distress, depression, tiredness (fatigue), and general health.

In other studies, art therapy has shown benefits in helping people to express the physical and emotional effects of having cancer. An American study looked at the effect of art therapy on people with cancer who had many different symptoms, including pain and anxiety. The researchers found that many symptoms, including tiredness, were improved, but art therapy did not help with sickness in this study.

Art therapy for coping with cancer

In the 2010 review mentioned above, some studies seemed to show great improvements in anxiety, ability to cope and overall quality of life. But some other studies showed no effect. 1 study found that art therapy had no effect on emotional expression or spirituality.

A German study reported in 2013. It looked at using art therapy for 54 cancer patients after treatment to see what effect it had on psychological distress and coping. The researchers did not find any difference between patients who had the art therapy and patients who did not. But they suggest that other studies may be able to find an effect.

One study, published in 2003 in the Oncology Nursing Forum Journal, examined how art helps survivors of breast cancer to express feelings about their illness. This study said that art can capture the most intimate and personal aspects of the cancer experience.

Two pilot studies in America researched the effects of art therapy in people having bone marrow transplants. Both studies reported some very positive aspects about using art therapy. 

Mindfulness based art therapy

The results of a clinical trial published in 2005 into a type of group therapy called mindfulness based art therapy (MBAT) suggest that this type of therapy could help people with cancer control their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Art therapy for children and young people

A study in 2001 looked at using art therapy for children having painful procedures for leukaemia, such as bone marrow biopsy or lumbar puncture. They found that children who had art therapy were less distressed and more able to cooperate during the procedures.

A 2003 Cochrane Review called ‘Interventions for improving communication with children and adolescents about their cancer’ included studies involving art therapy. They said that more research is needed in this area. So until larger studies are done we won’t know for sure how well art therapy works in helping children and young people with cancer.


The cost of art therapy

The cost of art therapy varies from place to place within the UK. A few cancer centres and hospitals in the UK may offer patients free art therapy sessions. So you can ask your nurse or doctor if this is available on the ward or centre where you have treatment. If not, they may know of voluntary organisations that offer free or low cost complementary therapy treatments to people with cancer.


Finding an art therapist

It is important to make sure your art therapist is properly qualified. The best way to find a reliable therapist is to

  • Contact the British Association of Art Therapists or the Health and Care Professions Council (see their details below) and ask for a list of reputable art therapists in your area
  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they've had, how long they've been practicing, and if they have worked with cancer patients before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

The Health and Care Professions Council regulates the art therapy profession. Therapists usually join The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT). The BAAT website has information about

The BAAT also have a list of private art therapy practitioners on their website. If you already have the name of an art therapist, you can see if they are registered on the Health and Care Professions Council website.


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)
24-27 White Lion Street
London N1 9PD
Phone: 020 7686 4216

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

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)

The HCPC regulates health professionals including art therapists.

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Updated: 4 February 2015