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More Than Just Survival: Using Art to Thrive Through Cancer Treatment

Tania Ortega-Cowan

Sometimes the best ideas can come out of a simple dinner conversation. Two friends happened to be talking…

BH: at the cancer gala in 2017.

That’s Barbara Hoffman of the Cultural Council of Indian River County. She was talking to oncologist…

RS: Raul Storey…

…of Florida Cancer Specialists in Vero Beach. The idea was hatched when she said…

BH: …how about we do an Arts in Medicine program?

Hoffman already had the research support through her connections to the University of Florida’s Arts in Medicine program, and so she and Storey set out to see exactly how they would integrate art into the treatment of his patients, with the goal of…

RS: …improving their depression, improving their anxiety, helping with coping skills, and basically creating a safe space where patients can express themselves, and feel better. We do believe that healing should be a combination of body, mind and soul.

Fast forward to now. They’re in the third month of their pilot program.  12 Artist Consultants bring their creative magic to the community chemo room three days a week.

RS: Patients, once they get exposed to this, even their perception about their disease and their perception about the pain that they have, has improved dramatically to the point that they don’t require taking narcotics or pain medication in the frequency they were taking it before.

We arrive at a Thursday morning chemo session and enter a large room with about 20 comfortable recliners attached to various machines and monitors. It’s full of people receiving chemo, but the feeling is one of relaxation and peacefulness, like we are at a spa.

AA: Hi, I’m Aric Attas.

Attas is the Artist Consultant assigned to this morning’s session. He has composed the music we hear, which is – literally – setting the tone.

AA: It creates a nice atmosphere here. It helps tone down some of the chatter and the banging that are hospital noises, let’s say. Creates a more peaceful atmosphere for people.

Using simple apps on the I-pad, Attas shows patients how to create music and how to color intricately-patterned circles called mandalas. They also make art using tangible materials.

 AA: Being creative puts you into that place of being in the unknown. And getting more comfortable with the unknown and having a trust in the process and a trust in the outcome that it will be positive regardless of what it looks like can translate to anything that you are going through in life.

Attas himself has healed from cancer… twice.

 AA: I strongly believe that I’m a survivor because of my creativity. So, it’s not just surviving like getting by but how can you actually thrive.

We meet Carole who is coloring a magnificent mandala on the I-Pad as she receives a treatment.

CC: I was going to tell you when you sat down, not today, I’m just not in the mood and then you got me right in the mood when you showed me this mandala. Ha-ha that’s great. I’m happy. Yeah. Started my day over, with this mandala. So, thank you! It’s really great because I think that it’s healing. And so, it’s another kind of healing. I believe the feeling good will be reflected in my body.

TOC: Yes!

CC: Yeah?

TOC: I believe that too.

CC: Yeah, right? Yes.

Caregivers are also here, and they get to create as well. And the medical staff sure seems to enjoy the atmosphere too.

AA: If the people caring have more energy and empathy or they’re just in a more positive place, it’s going to help everybody.

Soon it’s time for Attas to hand the baton to guitarist Steve Erickson for the afternoon chemo session.