Skip to Content


More Than Just Artwork: Expressive Arts Therapy

Network - Summer 2008

By Deborah Aranda
Coping with traumatic circumstances can be challenging, but Yvonne Cosgrove is helping people find a refuge through arts and crafts. An expressive arts therapy teacher at M. D. Anderson’s Place … of wellness, her mission is to help cancer patients and caregivers find a more peaceful state of mind.

Expressive arts therapy includes a variety of activities that range from dance to writing poetry, based on the idea that creative works can be a form of healing.

“It’s a chance to do some therapeutic work through exploring creativity, which leads to a more relaxed state,” Cosgrove says.

A fusion of art

Cosgrove, who has taught expressive arts for three years at the Place … of wellness, focuses on three elements: painting pottery, beading and mosaic artwork.

“We alternate working with malleable, molding clay. Students can make it into beads, magnets or pins that they can wear,” she says. “People leave with gorgeous necklaces. They’ll even make matched sets.”

Students who attend the free class work on everything from different texture tiles for making mosaic picture frames to painting a plate or a coffee cup. For some, it may just be painting beautiful artwork, but Cosgrove says that is only one aspect of it.

“This is a chance for people to get a break from the stresses of a fast-paced life and a cancer diagnosis. You’re a changed person, you have a better attitude and you get rejuvenated,” Cosgrove says. The class also allows attendees to put their issues in a new perspective.

“They can do something that takes their minds off everything else, and can focus on something other then their illness.”

Resting in expressive arts

Dealing with stressful situations is something Cosgrove is familiar with. She can relate to her students, as her own mother battled cancer. Her sensitivity to patients and caregivers is something several of her participants have experienced firsthand.

“She has been so warm and easygoing,” Elaine Hardie says. “She creates and fosters an environment of comfort.”

Hardie is one of the students who has found that refuge in arts and crafts and integrated them into her own life. “It’s part of the healing process, to have a creative outlet to place my stress,” she says.

Hardie has attended the class for nearly two years and to this day continues practicing expressive arts in her day-to-day life. “I still go to the classes because I love them so much. I even took the idea of expressive arts home and now have a beautiful garden.”

The class also has been an opportunity to create a network of support for those battling cancer and their caregivers. “It’s a safe environment, and you get to be around other people who know what you’re going through,” Hardie says.

She, like many others, has found this to be an effective way of expressing emotions during difficult moments in life.

Proof shown in expressive writing

Working with arts and crafts is one way to be creative, but another way is to write. The Place … of wellness also offers the class “Journaling: The Healing Power of Story.”

Several studies have shown how effective expressive writing has been in people’s lives. One study, “Implementing an Expressive Writing Study in a Cancer Clinic,” published in February in The Oncologist, shows how this can have a positive effect for cancer patients.

Expressive writing consists of writing one’s deepest feelings and thoughts about life experiences. Over the course of seven years, Nancy Morgan, lead author on the study, worked with 71 cancer patients with leukemia and lymphoma. They were asked to complete a 20-minute writing exercise while in the waiting room of an oncology clinic.

The study demonstrated that nearly half of the participants began having a different outlook on their illness and reported positive feedback. “Writing helps me stand back and reflect on what has happened,” one participant said.

Another participant told researchers, “I felt a lot calmer and more able to move on after writing about it and being forced to think about it. I loved writing about my experience.”

A follow-up writing exercise three weeks later showed that practicing expressive writing had a dramatic impact on patients’ lives. Several began having positive changes in their thoughts about life, and 53.8% reported a different outlook on their illness. This was linked to a significant improvement in their physical quality of life.

Cosgrove agrees, as she has seen improvements in patients’ quality of life in her own classes.

“There are a lot of patients who are dealing with stress. Maybe they’ve been waiting for an appointment all day, and this type of therapy gives them a way to relieve that stress through a creative outlet,” she says.

Editor’s note:
All classes offered at the Place … of wellness, except acupuncture and full-body massage, are free of charge for cancer patients and caregivers. The goal of the center is to provide a positive atmosphere for those affected by cancer and to enhance quality of life by focusing on the mind, body and spirit.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center