Coping with breast cancer through art therapy

Erin Simonetti was 10 years old when her mother died of cancer at the age of 38. Erin turned to art as an outlet for dealing with her grief. She found comfort and relief by expressing her thoughts and feelings on paper instead of through words. It was not until she went to college that she realized art was a tool many cancer centers incorporated in their treatment programs. Erin’s life and career path made a drastic turn. She had experienced the healing power of art first-hand, and wanted to help others in their journey, too. Today, she serves as a registered art therapist at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Flint, Michigan, where she facilitates week art therapy programs for patients and families touched by cancer.

In The Breast of Everything podcast, Erin talks about art therapy and how it can benefit cancer patients.

When cancer patients learn of their diagnosis, they struggle with how their life is about to change forever. They can’t find the words to describe their emotions and thoughts, but often they can express them through art. It is their therapeutic outlet for coping. Art becomes the patient’s dialogue.

The goal of art therapy is to create a safe space in a non-judgmental environment where cancer patients can externalize their emotions on paper. Each patient has his or her own unique perceptions about their cancer and they capture these through their art.

Erin sees how patients can release their stress, frustrations and anxiety when words just aren’t enough. They use art as a visual form of self-reflection to externalize the emotions locked inside so they gradually can begin to heal emotionally and mentally. She sees so many patients suffering physically and psychologically from their cancer diagnosis. They are depressed, they are fatigued, they are in pain, they don’t know what to say to their family and friends, and they are worried about how they are going to move forward with their life.

Through art therapy, they learn different coping skills, and they apply art expression to their personal journey, which allows them to gain perspective, learn about themselves, and grow stronger and more confident.

  • Erin points out a few common myths regarding art therapy:
  • You do not need any art background to participate. In fact, 95 percent of patients have no art experience.
  • Art therapy is not an art class or a craft class. Patients have a blank “canvas” to express whatever they are feeling that day.
  • Art therapy has nothing to do with the product created. It is about the experience of learning more about yourself and releasing your emotions on paper.
  • There are no psychotherapeutic techniques used.
  • The program is open to men and women.
  • The program is not “Painting with a Twist.” Patients are encouraged to be as creative as they want.

Art therapy provides patients with an opportunity to normalize their life a little by focusing on their art. It can be a source of emotional support when meeting other patients with a similar experience. It helps patients realize they are not alone in their journey.