They are asked to paint the cancer. Most reach for the ochre, the black, the red, and their paper becomes hideous, jagged, ferocious, infernal, howling, and torched. An enemy drawn in its vilest forms. The tall woman does none of this; she proceeds to paint a beautiful garden, a bright sun, a lady sleeping on the cool patch of grass. The tall woman, is always quiet and composed; as a painter this manner intensifies. Her flower blooms are gifted with bees and butterflies. The following week they add narrative to the paintings. Most are stories of the grotesque, some stay in the darkness, some stories move to the light. The tall woman went last, after a stretched sigh, she holds up her painting of the wonderful summer scene. She points to the small area in gray, in the stone path, there hidden, a shadowed face, its cloak, and its sliver-like sickle. She reads, “Once upon a fine day it emerged from its silent tomb to slay the woman.” The horror in the room is palpable, this tall woman is 32 years without cancer, if she’s still hostage when will they ever feel free?
He declines the magnetic poetry board. Many do. Composing a “poem” is unnecessary stress in a room of the necessary. Forty-five minutes into the first hour he wanders around the art corner like a caged panther. He briefly picks up the mallet and taps a few notes on the Chakra chimes. The next day, about an hour after he returned from lunch he asks about the paper cranes hanging in a mobile made from wire clothes hangers. He expresses an interest— in seeing it done. And watches the slow careful creases become a bird of flight. Then silently nods and returns to his usual bench to stare out the window in concentration, as if folding it all over and over again in his mind. Weeks later, at four and a half hours into confinement he picks up an errant magnetic board that someone placed in front of him when leaving the waiting room. He flicks at the words in the determined way of working an abacus. Then he begins to move the words pushing left to right, up and down, like a slide across puzzle. When he scrambles for the car in his routine gallant way of whisking his wife away, we see the intimacy of the words he left behind. Some random. Some in margins. Some grouped naturally in a haiku-ish formation— one clearly intact.
s urge blood shot
in whisper watch goddess
These stories are from my experience as a volunteer with an art therapy initiative at an oncology center. When people are going through illness or any stressful time, creating art, or more specifically journaling, is a very powerful tool to help cope. It can open a portal for reflection, growth, and healing by forcing us to think more clearly, giving a sense of purpose, being visual proof of having accomplished something, survived. Just seeing your thoughts and feelings written down somehow validates them, even if you are the only one seeing them. Don’t judge what you write, just write.
After my own cancer diagnosis, I often wrote as a way to expel the darkness and anxiety I naturally carried about my prognosis. Sometimes it was the only ventilation for my most distressing emotions. A journal is a place where the writer does not have to put up a brave face. Its primary purpose, like any art therapy, is catharsis.
Catherine’s work appears in Ars Medica Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, and an upcoming anthology with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. She is an eight-year cancer survivor. http://about.me/catherinemoore