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Art therapy

Art therapy helps to explore and express difficult thoughts and feelings. It can help with some symptoms of cancer and its treatment.

Summary

  • Art therapy helps people to explore and express difficult thoughts and feelings
  • It can help to relieve some symptoms of cancer and its treatment
  • Art therapy is safe to do with a qualified art therapist

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a form of emotional support. It can be helpful to people who are in difficult and challenging situations. It involves using visual art materials with a trained art therapist.  Together you 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

Why people with cancer use it

Art therapy is a way to communicate. It helps with exploring confused or difficult thoughts and feelings. It can encourage positive feelings too. People enjoy the control and expressive qualities of making art. Sharing experiences with a trained art therapist is supportive. It is also a way to connect with other people who are in similar situations.

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

The scientific evidence for art therapy is still limited. But many health professionals think it may:

  • encourage you to express your emotions
  • 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

How you have it

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. They want to understand your needs and expectations better. 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 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. They want to help you to develop your confidence and self- awareness. This could improve your well-being and quality of life.

Finding an art therapist

Art therapists work in a variety of settings. These include hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Making sure you find a qualified art therapist is important.

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). Only then can they 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
  • check the HCPC or BAAT website to see if they are listed on there if you have the name of an art therapist

Side effects

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.

Researchers did a systematic review in 2018. This means that a group of experts gather all the evidence about a particular subject. They then go through it to work out whether there is any evidence to support it. 

The researchers said that in people with cancer art therapy could improve their:

  • emotional state
  • symptoms of cancer

Researchers are currently looking at how art therapy can help with pain after breast cancer treatment.

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

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

Researchers did a pilot study in 2017. A pilot study is a small-scale version of the main study. Pilot studies help to test that all the main parts of the study work together. The study looked at the cost. It compared the cost of mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) with that of a breast cancer support group.

The study also showed that the group of people with high stress levels who did MBAT, had lower stress levels after nine weeks. This was when the researchers compared them with the people who had support from the breast cancer support group. The researchers suggested that a larger study with a longer follow up was necessary.

How much it costs

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.

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)
Last reviewed: 
29 Nov 2018
  • Art therapy for anxiety, depression, and fatigue in females with breast cancer: A systematic review

    T Yong and others

    Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 2018

  • Costs and Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy versus Standard Breast Cancer Support Group for Women with Cancer

    K Prioli and others

    American Health and Drug Benefits. 2017 September; 10(6): 288–295.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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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