Thursday, January 12, 2017

Art Has Power to Heal at Cancer Center

(From the January 12, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

My wife has enough reasons to drive into Grand Rapids to visit the Lemmon Holton Cancer Center at Spectrum Health. There are the routine checkups with the nurse practitioner at the surgeon’s office. There is the class to treat or prevent lymphedema, a condition that some people suffer after lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer surgery. There are the PET-CT scans and the MRIs to monitor her. And there are the periodic infusions she needs indefinitely to prevent recurrence of tumors.

I did not think she needed yet another reason to go to the cancer center.

It turns out I was wrong.

It started as a spontaneous and fun event. That lymphedema class has a number of people in it with whom she has formed friendships. My wife recently organized all of them chipping in to get a gift for the instructor, who is stepping down after a number of years. When that went well, my wife thought it would be a good idea to organize a group of them attending an “Expressive Arts” program together offered at the cancer center.

The program is about two years old. It is led by Renee, a woman who has a BFA (bachelor of fine arts) in painting, as well as a nursing degree. The program is offered at several of Spectrum’s campuses, working not only with cancer patients but also those who have had a traumatic brain injury, stroke or other medical condition for which the program could he helpful.

And it is helpful. As my wife and others painted on a recent afternoon when I had some time to go along, I spoke with the program director. Renee said it is all about “bringing the humanities to health care.” That warmed my heart, as a college professor who values a broad or liberal education, which includes not just an emphasis on job skills or math and science, but the humanities, which is an area of study including literature, history, art, music and philosophy.

As a side note, some of the best doctors we know are not limited to science, but have a humanities or creative side. The pediatric heart surgeon who worked on my nephew does graphic arts on the side. My wife’s nuero-oncologist studied theatre as an undergraduate and still participates in performances. A family friend who was a general practitioner was skilled in woodworking.

There are obvious emotional and mental benefits for cancer patients expressing their creative side. A flyer for the program notes that it promotes an individual’s ability to think creatively, to express their individuality, imagination and emotions. It makes people feel whole, a little more in control when they can paint a picture on a canvas. They realize they can be creative, that they can plan and do something. They learn that, of all of the parts of them that cancer steals, it cannot take away their creative expression.

A trip to the cancer center can be, dare I say it, fun.

Renee is working with some other staff members at Spectrum, including those who work in occupational therapy, to examine the physical benefits of Expressive Arts. While the study is not complete, already she says they are seeing patients have increased range of motion in their wrists, elbows and shoulders from making brush strokes on a canvas.

Meanwhile, you can’t paint all cancer patients with a broad brush. While only a handful were working on a painting the day I tagged along, Renee had placed dozens on the window ledge from past classes. There was a wide range of expressions, reflecting unique personalities, experiences, visions, and expressions. There were landscape, still life, and even abstract works of art. It was interesting to me that if anything was in common, it was the brightness of color and beauty of subject matter. There was not one dark or morose theme among them.

My wife’s art—you can see it in the photo accompanying this column--has nothing to do with cancer. It has everything to do with life. Her scene is light shining in a snowy woods, it is all about brightness and beauty, like the artist herself.


Of course cancer is treated with science. But it can also be treated with art. Science tells us what we must do in response to cancer. Art allows us to do what we will in spite of it, with cold indifference and oblivious creativity.