Health benefits can be found in both making and appreciating art
Although it’s been two years since Patti Jensen was diagnosed, she clearly remembers the head-spinning panic she felt when her doctor told her she had cancer. As her treatment began, she couldn’t shake the fear that she was going to die.
What helped her cope was a paintbrush and a blank canvas.
“I found out that art, creating something, calms me and grounds me,” says Jensen, who works as a production planner for a manufacturing company. “When you’re sitting with the fear, you need to find ways to express yourself.”
Jensen was introduced to art therapy as she underwent treatment, which included three surgeries, at St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee. An art therapist employed by the hospital brought her supplies to paint while receiving her care. Jensen recalls the experience as relaxing, taking her mind away from worrying about her next shot.
Pat Bowe also participated in art therapy after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2017. While resistant to the concept at first because, as she says, “I’m not artsy,” she became a fan with the encouragement of a therapist, her artist daughter and a paint-by-numbers set. She says that art therapy gave her, “a way to get out of” her head.
It also helped her to express her emotions.
“We want to heal the spirit and keep the mind healthy, too.”—Michael Morris, Director of Business Development, St. Francis Regional Medical Center
The first time she created an original piece, she had gotten some disheartening news from her doctor earlier in the day. “I felt my whole day had gone black,” she says. After receiving more promising news later that same day from her oncologist, she picked up the paintbrush. “The black in the picture at the bottom is just how oppressed I felt after being told about the cancer,” Bowe says, describing the painting. “Then the rainbows are how I felt after seeing the oncologist. Below the rainbow, I have the sun and circles in all different colors. I’m rising up in purple streaks — pancreatic cancer is purple — and the cancer is being dissolved.”
Whole person care
Art is one of the integrated therapies woven into traditional treatment for patients at St. Francis as part of its effort to provide “whole person care,” which focuses on improving all factors of health: mind, body, spirit and community. St. Francis is a Catholic hospital co-owned by Allina, HealthPartners/Park Nicollet and Essentia Health, and sponsored by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth.
St. Francis also provides acupuncture, massage, guided imagery, Korean hand therapy, acupressure, healing touch, reflexology and aromatherapy for admitted inpatients or patients undergoing chemotherapy in its Cancer Center. These amenities and resources are at no cost to the patient because the center believes there are many components to health beyond surgery and pharmaceutical care.
“It’s become part of our brand,” says Michael Morris, director of business development at St. Francis. “We want to heal the spirit and keep the mind healthy, too.”
“Patients commonly ask for these modalities. They’ve heard about them already,” adds Nancy Menth, patient care manager at St. Francis’ Cancer Center and Specialty Clinics.
St. Francis is riding the crest of an international movement to bring the arts into health care. A 2009 report by the Global Alliance for Arts & Health found that more than 40% of U.S. health care institutions offered arts programs. In 2013, the Alliance surveyed 129 veteran medical centers and found more than half included arts programming at patients’ bedsides.
The staff at St. Francis tracks the ripple effect of all integrative therapies on patients. Art therapy specifically aims to improve overall well-being while reducing stress and anxiety scores to measure the benefits of their services, according to Menth. “Mainstream medicine is looking for options for pain relief that do not involve narcotics,” says Menth.
There’s a growing body of research that confirms the arts can provide more than a distraction.
A 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health found more than 100 studies that scientifically validated the value of arts on improving mental and physical health.
Another 200-page document released in the U.K. earlier this year offered research demonstrating the healing power of the arts; the report suggests arts-related interventions could be a valuable method for saving money for Britain’s National Health Service.
This research could explain the long history of hanging artwork to make hospital spaces feel less threatening. Rochester’s Mayo Clinic was an early leader in building a campus-wide art collection to share with patients, visitors and staff. Today the famed clinic offers regular art and architecture tours to highlight its donated and commissioned works.
At St. Francis, paintings, framed photographs and sculptures chosen with the help of an art consultant contribute to the therapeutic environment.
“When people walk in our doors, they’re stressed about a diagnosis or apprehensive about a loved one’s surgery, but we hear all the time that this doesn’t look like a hospital,” says Tamara Severtson, the manager of mission integration at St. Francis. “We can activate the creative spirit that aids healing. We can be about healing even when we can’t be about curing.”
Helping the healers
Severtson notes that the hospital’s curated space is targeted at its employees as well as patients. This includes several healing gardens and a meditative art walk for staff to take a few breaths and be renewed. The hospital also commissioned art for its conference rooms inspired by its values: joy, justice, hospitality, respect, stewardship and partnership.
“People working in health care give all day, every day, and it takes a physical, emotional and spiritual toll,” Severtson says. “When they can de-stress, it gives them more room for compassion and higher quality care.”
For Patti Jensen, the connection to creativity has been life-enhancing. Working with the art therapist, she discovered her hidden talent for painting and continues to use her brush, canvases and adult coloring books to keep her spirit calm and her panic at bay.
“The fear will always be there,” she admits. “When you’re fighting cancer, you learn to look for what makes you happy so that you can fly away for a little while.”
Pat Bowe adds that she hopes more people take a chance and try art therapy. “Cancer takes over your spirit — your physical and emotional being — and sucks it in. Somehow you have to find a way to let it go.”