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Q&A: How Art Helps Pediatric Cancer Patients

CancerWise - December 2008

If you've ever witnessed an energetic elementary school art class, you've seen creativity in action. But the relationship between children and art goes far beyond fun. Creative activities can help children with cancer relax, express their feelings and cope with their condition.

The Children's Art Project (CAP) at M. D. Anderson works with outpatients and inpatients to create artwork that is reproduced and sold as cards, calendars, clothing, jewelry and more. Proceeds fund programs for patients at the hospital.

Answering questions about how art can help children with cancer are Shannan Murray, CAP executive director, and Leon Benavides, CAP volunteer coordinator and art teacher.

How can art help kids with cancer?

SM: We feel very strongly about the power of creativity, and art classes are part of the curriculum in M. D. Anderson's K-12 school. As a matter of fact, CAP artwork comes from those classes.

The hospital can feel like a sterile, threatening environment to a child. Art can take him or her out of the moment, and that individual self-expression can help decrease stress.

LB: We try to get kids to leave everything else at the door in art class. There are no doctors, no nurses, no patients, just fun.

Young cancer patients may not have control over their medical situation, but they have complete creative control.

How can any parent help his or her child benefit from art?

LB: Anyone can benefit from creating art, not only kids with cancer.

The most important thing is to keep it fun; don't make it a chore or something that has to be done. And remember: There are no mistakes in art.

Take into consideration your child's physical and mental capabilities. Also, keep in mind what he or she really likes to do.

An art session works much better if you give a child a theme or activity, rather than just say, "Let's draw."

It may help to show the child some examples or photos of what you're trying to get across. You can complete a project beforehand and offer it as an example, or you can complete it in front of them so they can see how it's done.

Where can I get ideas?

LB: Ideas are everywhere. I like to look at photography books. We use the seasons and various holidays for inspiration, too.

Don't worry if you don't have extensive materials. Kids have no problem improvising with any supplies you have on hand. Encourage them to be creative and adventurous.

What kinds of activities do children enjoy?

LB: The favorite activity for the largest number of kids is making paper. They really love it. I think it's the combination of collecting the ingredients, adding glitter and using the blender. It's hands-on, messy and has lots of steps.

Almost all kids enjoy working on art with other children, especially their friends. If your child is well enough, consider inviting a friend or several friends over for an art party.

Are there other programs in the country like CAP?

Although CAP's breadth, history and success set it apart, other programs in the country are similar.

Other art programs for pediatric cancer patients include:

M. D. Anderson resources:

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center