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Healing Arts in Pediatric Oncology

November 22, 2010
Tree Painting in Oncology

In Tavisha's tree of life, she is not alone.

MICA student Wade with patient

MICA graduate student Emily Wade, left, guides patients in weekly art classes.

Around a playroom table in the oncology inpatient unit, artist Emily Wade encourages a group of patients and parents to think about those for whom they’re thankful and then create a thank-you card for one of them. They pick up their watercolor brushes and get to work.  


Wade, a graduate student in art education at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and MICA undergraduate Nora Truskey are leading weekly arts groups like this at Hopkins Children’s as part of a new program, Art for Hope. Launched this summer by Wade with small grants and a stipend from MICA, the pilot project was designed to help pediatric oncology patients and their families express their feelings and engage in creative arts.The students, interns in MICA’s Community Arts Partnership, introduce a new project weekly. Oncology Social Work Supervisor Kathleen Orr often joins them in the conversation that takes place around the table.  


“We want our children and families to be able to talk about their feelings, about what’s going on for them inside,” says Orr. “The creative arts provide an outlet for self-expression and the chance to learn a new skill, like watercolor painting or bookmaking, which can be an empowering as well as a therapeutic experience.” 


One week, participants were asked to paint an emotion in response to their cancer and then an image of healing. Another time, Wade asked patients to imagine that a seed took root on the day they were born and how their live experience has shaped it ever since. “What does it look like today?” she queried.  


For 16-year-old Tavisha, the answer was a lush tree with green leaves, which “represent the people around me and things we have gone through,” she says. “There is a big red leaf that represents me. Around the tree is light blue to represent people I don’t know and the struggles they go though. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I had no idea what they felt like or how hard it would be.” 


Orr, who has worked with Wade to put the program together, was recently awarded a $16,000 Lance Armstrong Foundation (LIVESTRONG) Community Award to help keep it going. The award provides funds for art supplies and a stipend for an artist.  


“Seed programs like this are often the projects that take hold at Hopkins,” said Steven Thompson, senior vice president for Johns Hopkins Medicine, who stopped by the playroom, Thursday, Nov. 18, to see an exhibit of patients’ artwork. “I’m hoping that there will be others who also see the value of infusing arts in healthcare here.” 


Thompson is a sponsor of a national focus, this month of November, on the role of the arts in healthcare. Arts+Health Month is a project of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, designed to heighten awareness of how the arts can improve outcomes and build supportive environments.  


“The Society for Arts in Healthcare has consistently documented the success of the arts in helping patients, adults as well as children, in their physical, mental and emotional recovery,” says Orr. “Our own art program has noticeably relieved anxiety in children undergoing cancer treatment and decreased their perception of pain.”   

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