Art Therapy and Cancer

Art therapy offers cancer patients an expressive outlet and a source of empowerment.

Studio artist Joanie San Chirico was awarded an important, large commission immediately following her first round of chemotherapy for fallopian tube cancer. While the thought of tackling such a huge project in the face of intensive treatment had obvious drawbacks, San Chirico felt she had to step up to the task. “Something told me I had to do it. Otherwise, I’d be sitting around thinking about cancer, chemo and what I couldn’t do,” she explains.

San Chirico moved forward with both her chemotherapy and the commission, which would be installed in a new library not far from her Toms River, New Jersey, studio. Though the project required a terrific amount of work (in addition to creating her paintings, she also coordinated with the architect and the construction crew), the artist reflects on diving into her work during treatment, and shares, “It was definitely the right choice for me,” adding, “Some days I was so busy, I even forgot that I was sick. I think it’s important to stay as physically and mentally active as possible during chemo, even though some days will seem nearly impossible.

Once completed and open to the public, San Chirico’s artwork at the library was received with praise and even greater admiration when the community learned that she had created the collection during her cancer treatment. However, when she heard herself called a “hero,” San Chirico balked. “I’m not a hero—I just did what I had to do to keep me sane!”

The fact is, artistic activities—whether painting, sculpture, drawing, writing, music or dance—can benefit patients facing cancer in countless ways. Creative work can offer distraction from the side effects of treatment, soothe anxiety and create a way to express feelings that might otherwise seem too difficult to share.

Art therapy, which continues to gain recognition for its supportive and healing contributions to patients’ lives, focuses on just these benefits. While the role of art therapy for cancer patients has yet to undergo extensive scientific evaluation, a recent study at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital found that art projects did reduce symptoms for cancer patients.[1]

In this way, art therapy is now being recognized as a viable form of supportive care for patients who find relief in exploring artistic pursuits as part of their treatment, and it is now often included in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) programs offered by comprehensive cancer centers. Stanford Cancer Center (, for example, lists art programs with their supportive care and alternative services.

In various mediums and for artists of experience levels from amateur to professional, art has long been an outlet for fear and sadness, a distraction from illness and a way to share joy and hope. For cancer patients, the creative process can be a powerful source of comfort and strength while facing illness. Sometimes just as necessary, creative activities can also be an effective distraction that forces the patient to focus intensely on something other than cancer. And, cancer doesn’t mean an end to work or other activities—it can in fact be an opportunity to explore interests more deeply or even to embrace a new skill.

For more information about art therapy, visit the American Art Therapy Assication at