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Artful Therapy Helps Kids Cope with Cancer

  • Susan Logue

A diagnosis of cancer can be devastating, especially when the patient is a child.

But art therapy is making it easier for some patients who go to Georgetown Hospital’s Lombardi Cancer Center for treatment.

Calming influence

Alesia Allen, 10, is all smiles, even as she helps the nurse draw a syringe of her blood.

Although she has finished her chemotherapy, she returns to Georgetown Hospital for regular check-ups. She’s been coming here ever since arriving in the United States from Russia earlier this year.

“I like this place,” Alesia says. She enjoys drawing, painting and playing a fashion design game on an iPad.

The blood draw is almost an afterthought for Alesia now, but her father, Larry Allen, says she was scared the first time she came here, based on her hospital experience in Russia.

“Medically it was OK, but in every other aspect it wasn’t,” he says.

According to Allen, Alesia was strapped into a bed during her treatments in Russia and was told the cancer was her fault.

“The first time we walked in here, six months ago, the art therapy is what kept her calm," Allen remembers. "Even when she looked like she was going to have a meltdown, Tracy helped her keep it together.”

Tracy's Kids

Tracy Councill is the art therapist who works with Alesia and other kids like her. She founded Tracy’s Kids at Georgetown Hospital 20 years ago. Since then, the pediatric art therapy program has been replicated at three other hospitals in the Washington area, as well as one in Texas.

“Just engaging in the art process can be very grounding and relaxing in a really scary place,” Councill says.

The clinic doesn’t look scary. It was designed so art would be the first thing patients see when they enter. There are paintings, drawings and craft projects everywhere. Even the ceiling tiles are covered with pictures.

Most of the art is bright and cheerful, but there are darker works.

“We get a lot of monsters,” Councill says. She believes they are symbolic of the anger young cancer patients experience. “A lot of times when patients are going through treatment, they really want to be good. They know their parents are sad, and they are causing everybody a lot of trouble. The art process opens them up and gives them an avenue where they can put their darker feelings and anger, because they have a lot to be angry about.”

No one is depicting monsters today. While he receives a transfusion for aplastic anemia, Akele Carpentier creates a model of an amusement park out of cardboard and modeling clay.

He comes here twice a week to get transfusions through the port in his chest. “It’s hard not to remember that I have a port in my chest.”

But designing a fantasy helps, Councill says.

“When a kid does a process like that, I think of it actually as they are creating a little world. It’s a way of using their imagination to take them outside of the hospital and put them in another place.”

Lasting impact

Dr. Aziza Shad, who heads Georgetown’s Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Program, can’t imagine caring for her patients without the art therapy program.

“I think children who are emotionally comfortable with their diagnosis and who have emotional support stay fewer days in the hospital. I honestly truly believe that,” she says. “And I think more importantly when they are done with treatment for cancer, they tend to adjust better.”

Whether that's true or not, it's clear that art therapy has improved these patients’ quality of life, by helping them cope with their disease and its treatment.
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