Spotlight On: Art Therapists in Cancer Care

April 20, 2017
Emily Goodman

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you will interact with a number of different members of the health care team at various times during treatment. When you walk into a doctor’s office, hospital, or cancer center, you may encounter nurses, physician assistants, social workers, doctors—the list goes on. In the Spotlight On series, we talk with some of these health care professionals to learn more about their jobs and the role they play in providing high-quality cancer care.

Michelle Itczak is a board-certified, registered art therapist and licensed mental health counselor. She specializes in medical art therapy and trauma. In 2010, Michelle established the art therapy program at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University (IU) Health. Michelle works in a group private practice, and she provides art therapy services through Cancer Support Community of Central Indiana. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Art Therapy Program at Herron School of Art and Design.

1. What is art therapy?

Michelle Itczak (MI):  Art therapy is a type of mental health care. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy seeks to improve or restore a client’s functioning and sense of well-being. Using art, the therapist helps clients accomplish goals like these:

  • Explore feelings

  • Reconcile emotional conflicts

  • Foster self-awareness

  • Manage behavior and addictions

  • Develop social skills

  • Improve the awareness of time and location and recognition of familiar people

  • Reduce anxiety

  • Increase self-esteem

2. What does an art therapist do?

MI: Art therapists work with individuals or groups to achieve therapeutic goals through the visual arts. Art therapy with a patient who has cancer may look different based on the setting. In an open studio session, the art therapist provides a safe, expressive environment for 1 or more patients to choose materials and projects. In an inpatient setting or infusion center, patients may receive one-on-one therapy at the bedside. The art therapist may recommend specific interventions or which media to use.

3. How can art therapy help people with cancer? share on twitter 

MI: Art therapy can provide a sense of control when people are in a situation filled with many uncertainties. For example, patients choose how much or how frequently to participate, what materials to use, and what to share about their artwork.

In addition, the simple act of creating art can help reduce stress, fear, and anxiety, improving quality of life. Art therapy enables people to express feelings they may struggle to communicate with words. Expressing emotions in a healthy manner contributes to mental health.

4. Is art therapy just for people who are already artists?

MI: Absolutely not. Art therapy isn’t about creating artwork to be hung in a museum. It’s about the process of creating and expressing oneself.

Art therapy is accessible for anyone who is willing and able to participate. Art therapists are trained to use art materials with people of all ages and adapting interventions to any developmental level.

5. Adult coloring books are very popular right now. What is it about coloring and color theory that can be helpful for people with cancer?

MI: Coloring can be a calming experience. Specifically, a pre-drawn image with boundaries provides structure and containment, which may bring a sense of comfort when circumstances feel scary or unpredictable.

And art therapy often equates color with emotion. So, using specific colors may help people express hard-to-describe emotions.

Michelle talks more about the role of art therapists in oncology in the following podcast, including how to find an art therapist. A transcript of this podcast is also available.