For children diagnosed with cancer, powerful healing therapies don’t always come in the form of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
At MD Anderson, there is a program that relies on something entirely different — art.
For more than 37 years, the MD Anderson Children’s Art Project (CAP) has given pediatric cancer patients the opportunity to channel their emotions through artwork.
With assistance from volunteers and art instructors, each child works alongside other young patients facing the same reality. The immediate benefit is a supportive and inspiring environment at a time when it’s needed most.
“During treatment so much is out of the patient’s control, but the time spent creating artwork allows each child to feel empowered,” says Shannan Murray, CAP’s executive director.
“It’s a creative outlet that provides a way to look beyond the disease, and this offers the patient hope.”
Patients, families notice the benefits
For Emily Garcia, 20, a longtime CAP artist who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at age 11, cancer was overwhelming to say the least.
Part of her treatment required a leg amputation, and, for an avid basketball player and gymnast, this was difficult to accept.
During inpatient treatment, Garcia discovered CAP and has since created more than 15 designs.
“The project gave me hope that I was able to do something when I felt there was nothing I could do,” Garcia says. “When I had to give up sports and I couldn’t see my friends, CAP showed me there were other ways to express myself and be who I am.”
Samantha Garcia, Emily’s mother, noticed an immediate change in her daughter’s outlook once she began participating and making friends in the art classes.
“I think CAP gave her a sense of belonging because the kids at school didn’t understand what Emily was going through,” she says. “It provided a sense of independence, and it’s strange to say, but Emily actually looked forward to going to the hospital because of CAP.”
Artwork leads to opportunities
Kolton Lane, 15, who was diagnosed with large cell lymphoma at age 11, is a current designer and best known for his Texas longhorn artwork.
He believes the best part about CAP is that it encourages patients to try new things while keeping their minds off harsh treatments like chemotherapy.
One of the most important aspects of CAP is the programs it supports through the sale of gift items and stationery featuring the children’s designs. These include an annual rehabilitative ski trip to Utah each January, summer camps and a scholarship fund.
“It’s incredible to watch these kids ski down a mountain and realize no obstacle will ever stand in the way of their dreams,” Murray says.
“This is the epitome of what CAP represents because it’s not only inspiring for the patients, but it’s also made possible by the very artwork they create.”
CAP is indeed a world of transformations — from the blank canvas to one splattered with colorful paint, from the often anxious first-time participant to someone who soon realizes his or her own talent.
For Kolton, this realization came when he uncovered an inner creativity that he never knew existed. Now, he hopes to begin another design and acknowledges it will likely be for a holiday collection.
Perhaps the greatest testimony is seen in the former artists who continue to stay involved, whether as field trip counselors or art instructor volunteers. They recognize that the hope CAP provided during their own cancer experiences should be realized by each young artist.
However, in this hope, there is one commonality that supersedes everything and underscores the real impact.
“At the end of the day, we have to remember all the artists are still kids,” Murray says. “They want to do normal things, and CAP offers a way to get through the treatments and come out on the other side.”