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Signs of Hope: COLLAGE

Conquest - Summer 2012

Program offers a collection of artistic opportunities


By Mindy Loya

In 2006, when Jennifer Wheler, M.D., approached her new boss with a proposal to create an art program for cancer patients, Razelle Kurzrock, M.D., wasn’t immediately sold on the idea.

“I’m scientifically oriented, not artistically inclined, so it took me a while to warm up to the idea,” says Kurzrock, professor and chair of the Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics. She came to love the concept when she realized art might take her patients’ minds off their diseases.

And COLLAGE: The Art for Cancer Network was born. Wheler, assistant professor in the department and founder of this 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, says it not only takes patients’ minds off their illnesses, but also allows them to explore their conditions and how their diseases relate to their identities.

“As wonderful as MD Anderson is, many patients struggle with the feeling that they’ve become a piece in a machine. They feel they’ve lost part of their identities by becoming cancer patients,” Wheler says. “But through art, we can restore a feeling of individuality.”

Simple, but unique

Wheler, who has an undergraduate degree in art history, says the program works because it’s simple.

Six professional artists from the Houston community, with talents in collage, painting, drawing, book making, photography, Chinese ink art and creative writing, work one-on-one or in groups with patients, survivors and family members.

The program invites participants to the Integrative Medicine Center twice a month for workshops to create works of art. For repeat visitors, it builds a sense of community.

In addition, an artist-in-residence program brings the artists into outpatient waiting areas and to the bedside of critically ill inpatients.

Like Kurzrock, many patients don’t initially think of themselves as artistic. “But once they embrace the experience, their artwork becomes precious to them,” Wheler says, recalling a patient who carried his artwork with him in his briefcase.

The program is supported by donations from people, corporations and foundations. The contributions pay for art supplies and stipends for some of the artists, while others offer their time pro bono.

“Just as physicians are compensated for their expertise, it’s important that we recognize the meaningful work of these talented artists,” Wheler says.

And it does take exceptional skill and time to guide people through self-expression. Sessions can be brief — as is the case when an artist goes to a waiting room to help outpatients pass the time until their next appointment — or can last for hours when artists visit inpatients who are nearing the end of life.

Capturing a patient’s essence

Marcia Brennan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of art history and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. She’s also an artist-in-residence for COLLAGE. Brennan applies her skills as a creative writer when she visits critically ill inpatients.

Artist Maureen McNamara works with patient Corrine Lockett 
on a beading project as part of the COLLAGE program.
Photo: John Everett

She and visual artist Lynn Randolph translate patients’ reflections on their lives into words and images. The finished product often is placed in a book that’s given to the patient or family and treated as a keepsake.

“There are many ways people at the end of life perceive the sacred within the familiar and ordinary — from the flowers in their gardens to visits with grandchildren to their own experiences with angels and divine presences,” Brennan says. “These interactions have changed my perspective profoundly, both as a scholar and as a person.”

Eduardo Bruera, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine, says these interactions help patients cope with the stress of their situation. But, he adds, they are beneficial for his staff, too.

“Care providers are relieved when the artists can come capture a patient’s story and help that person leave a legacy,” he says.

The program also assists health care providers by coordinating guided tours of local museums. “As a result, my staff accepts art as a valuable tool for diffusing stress in their own lives,” Bruera says.

A different kind of personalized care

Wheler notes the program shouldn’t be considered art therapy.

“We don’t have a specific outcome in mind,” Wheler explains. “Our focus is on the quality of the interaction between the artist and the patient. We introduce the patient to the power of self-expression, regardless of the output.”

Wheler sees this aligning with the institution’s goal to provide personalized cancer care. And she says she’s grateful for the support of Kurzrock and Bruera, who recognize the connection. Both are on the program’s board of directors.

Kurzrock no longer has doubts. “The feedback from patients and staff has been terrific,” she says. “Patients get this unique attention and empowerment, and we all see the positive changes in the patients’ attitudes.”

To date, more than 3,500 people have participated in the program.

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