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What art therapy is

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. Art therapy 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.

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 to control anxiety, depression and low self esteem
  • Help take your mind off pain or discomfort

Art therapists are trained to 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 disabilities

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. Art therapists have a postgraduate training and are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council.


Why people with cancer use art therapy

As with many types of psychological support, people with cancer use art therapy to help themselves manage their feelings, relationships and activities better. 

Art therapists use a variety of techniques within a safe and confidential setting to help people

  • Express buried emotions
  • Adjust to a changing body image
  • Cope with grief
  • Cope with fear, anxiety and depression
  • Gain a sense of freedom and self confidence
  • Communicate more easily

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.


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
  • Sculpture, collage or 3-D work
  • Using tools such as iPads, smartphones and digital cameras

On your first visit, the art therapist will ask several questions about you. By understanding your particular needs, problems, and expectations the art therapist can help design a plan of therapy that suits you. This includes how often you will meet together, and the purpose and length of each session.

Art therapy can take place in individual or group sessions. These can last up to 60 minutes for one to one appointments, or longer for groups. Depending on the setting, art 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, and develop your own confidence and self awareness. This can improve your general wellbeing and quality of life. 

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

A study in Sweden gave a course of 5 individual art therapy sessions to women having radiotherapy for breast cancer. The researchers found that the art therapy can help to increase the ability to cope and improve quality of life.

A UK survey published in 2013, reported that 92% of adults with cancer who had used art therapy found it helpful. Patients agreed that art therapy

  • Benefited their coping
  • Improved communication
  • Helped them express their feelings
  • Gave new perspectives
  • Helped to distract them from their worries.

The survey concluded that the non verbal, physical and visual aspects of art therapy gave a distinctive addition to usual verbal forms of support.

Two pilot studies researched the effects of art therapy in people having bone marrow transplants. Both studies reported some very positive aspects about using art therapy to share uncomfortable feelings, and give support when people were feeling anxious and far away from loved ones.

Mindfulness based art therapy

The results of a clinical trial were published in 2006 looking at a type of group therapy called mindfulness based art therapy (MBAT). The study suggested 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. The reviewers 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

In some leading cancer centres and hospitals in the UK, art therapy sessions are available free of charge. So you can ask your nurse or doctor if this is available on the ward or centre where you have treatment. If not, they might know of voluntary organisations that offer free or low cost art therapy services for people with cancer. 

You can also contact the British Association of Art Therapists, whose special interest group (Creative Response) may know of art therapists working in cancer services in your area. 


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 and ask for a list of reputable art therapists in your area (see their details below)
  • 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 title ‘art therapist’ or ‘art psychotherapist’ is protected by law. Anyone using one of these titles must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. 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.

Art therapists also usually join their professional body, The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT). The BAAT website has information about


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: 3 June 2016