When art therapist Jessica Matos helps a patient piece together a collage with images from childhood, she’s helping her hold onto her identity amid an illness that can threaten to take control of one’s life.
As she helps to ease her patient’s anxiety and fears, Matos is also helping her strengthen her memory and motor skills.
The Integrative & Creative Arts Therapy program at the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute is tapping into its patients’ desires to create and express themselves. At the same time, art and music therapy have been shown to be modern evidence-based, integrative treatments of cancer and methods to control the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Creative arts therapies are helping cancer patients live fuller lives by reducing their pain, anxiety, blood pressure and treating a host of other side effects of cancer treatment. For patients, it’s a good time and good medicine.
Any Florida Hospital patient receiving cancer therapy, whether admitted to the hospital or visiting for treatment such as chemotherapy, is eligible to receive music or art therapy from a trained professional, as are their caregivers. This program is made possible through the generosity of the community’s giving to the Florida Hospital Foundation.
The use of music and art to treat the emotional, physical and social health of cancer patients represents the essence of Florida Hospital’s holistic approach to medicine, says Rich Abante Moats. She is a board-certified music therapist and manager of the Integrative and Creative Arts Therapy Program.
Using Creativity as a Gateway to Trust
At the center of art and music therapy is the individual relationship therapists form with patients.
“We get to know patients on a personal level,” says Erica Kopp, a board-certified music therapist. Matos agrees, saying that establishing that trust is key to allowing them the freedom to go along with the creative process.
It makes sense — think about how difficult it can be to express oneself alongside people you don’t know.
Patients tend to find comfort in the predictable familiarity of music and art, allowing that sense of ease to reach them during cancer treatment. It also creates strong bonds based on trust that are ultimately both therapeutic themselves and guide their care at all levels.
Because Florida Hospital’s goal is treatment of the whole person, developing the trust to understand a patient at the physical, emotional and spiritual level is at the center of care.
Using Science-Based Therapy
In addition to being guided by a patient’s experience and preferences, creative arts therapies are tailored to their illness and symptoms.
Drumming, for example, can help tap into function, cognitive and motor skills that other activities often cannot. Tactile media like clay and charcoals can stimulate the many parts of the brain that depend on touch. Watercolors can have a relaxing effect.
“It gives them the mastery of control when they feel out of control,” Matos says. For many patients with brain cancer, part of that loss of control stems from an inability to express oneself with words. For these people, art becomes a critical outlet for expression.
“It helps them tap into their essence and identity despite an illness that can feel as if it’s controlling your life,” Matos says. Cancer can be “a scary place to be, and this brings them back to who they are.”
Art and music therapists are credentialed professionals, and evidence is growing that art and music do more than make us feel momentarily happy. They appear to accomplish this at least partially by taking advantage of the body’s own capacity to heal and feel good, including through the release of natural endorphins.
A 2016 Cochrane Review of 52 studies about the effect of music therapy on cancer patients found that it may have a beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, fatigue, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.
Your Brain on Music
Brain cancer patients are often dealing with neurological deficits and music therapists have specific treatments to help patients recover or maintain what they’ve lost.
Making music alongside a rhythm exercises the brain and serves as a cue for movement, Kopp says.
“We use musical cues to prompt movement and help to meet the goals that a patient identifies,” she says. If a patient wants to work on their strength and endurance, key facets of independent living, moving to a beat can help him or her exercise for longer than they’d thought possible.
Making a collage of different familiar images from childhood can help patients work on their memory and recall. As anyone who turns to music after a tough day can attest, the right song can take the edge off and help us reconnect with our inner self.
Creative arts therapists are often called in to ease a patient experiencing anxiety or agitation, though often when they arrive a new side of the patient quickly emerges.
“It really helps enhance all parts of health: physical, emotional and mental,” Matos says.
Furthermore, music therapists who treat the neurological impairments often caused by brain tumors undergo further training in reversing or limiting these deficits, Kopp says.
“We’re helping to re-wire their brain,” she says.
You Don’t Have to be an Artist or Musician
Creative arts therapy isn’t just for people who already know their way around an easel or guitar. No background, training or skills are necessary to benefit from art and music therapy.
Instead, Matos says, an art therapist taps into a universal human need to express oneself. Especially for people dealing with neurological issues that make it difficult to communicate, art and music can be a vehicle to express each person’s individual sense of creativity.
Their therapeutic relationships with patients helps art and music therapists understand each person’s creative self and thus reap the maximum benefits from their treatment.
Therapists also meet patients at their ability level physically; if they lack the dexterity to hold a drum between their legs, for example, the therapist can hold it for the patient to strike with a rhythm.
Guided by Each Patient’s Goals
Because it is so personal to each patient, music and art therapy seeks to tailor itself to their individual goals. Therefore, a patient’s specific symptoms and their goals for treatment guide the agenda of a music or art therapist.
“It’s important to always be aware of what the patient’s needs are, because what I’m assessing is their most important need today,” Moats says. “It’s about meeting patients where they are.”
For more information about Florida Hospital’s Integrative & Creative Arts Therapies, visit our website or call 407-303-5685.