Complementary Cancer Therapies: Can They Really Help?

November 07, 2016 6:00 AM
University of Michigan art therapy supplies

Complementary therapies involving art and visualization, among other means, can be used to help cancer patients on their road to wellness.

A standard treatment for cancer might include chemotherapy to attack and shrink cancer cells.

Many patients and practitioners, though, also are looking to complementary medicine to help lessen discomfort, shift perspective and ensure the best possible outcome.

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The supplemental techniques involve no drugs or high-tech medical equipment. Nor must they take place within the confines of a hospital.

Instead, such therapies might involve guided imagery sessions to enhance relaxation or spiritual care to guide patients struggling with life’s profound questions, such as “Why cancer — and why me?” Others could find solace with the aid of drawing or music.

A common thread: All methods harness the healing power of the mind.

Guided imagery, for one, “is a way to tap into the power of your imagination and use your senses to release uncomfortable feelings or thoughts and then refocus,” says Claire Casselman, a clinical social worker in the Complementary Therapies Program at the University of Michigan Health System.

That approach helped UMHS patient Kris Snow as she underwent chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer.

Snow, a Utah native and an avid skier, envisioned her beloved pastime and familiar snowy slopes using a CD with a personalized script narrated by Casselman.

“As I was laying there, I would take myself to the top of that mountain,” Snow says. “I would think of the sound of skis swishing on snow. … It calms you down. I never felt anxious about what the treatment was doing to my body.”

Effective, too, was a new mindset of how Snow visualized the fight in her body — with the cancer cells as enemies, her U-M caregivers as generals and the infusion treatments as soldiers going into battle.

Photograph of a man participating in art therapy for cancer treatment
Many cancer centers offer art therapy programs to help patients manage difficult emotions. Art therapy can take place in individual and group workshop settings.

Reflections also can be external.

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Another complementary treatment for cancer patients is art therapy, which uses creative expression to promote emotional, mental and physical well-being. It is grounded in the belief that the creative process of making art is inherently healing and an outlet for self-expression.

Many comprehensive cancer centers, including U-M, offer art therapy in individual or group settings. Participants needn’t be skilled at or even experienced with art.

Many adults, after all, have long been drawn to the creative process of coloring for its ability to lower stress and increase relaxation while easing feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation.

Applied in the context of cancer, the simple pastime takes on a higher purpose.

“The emotions involved in coping with treatment, living with uncertainty and meeting the challenges of everyday life are often hard to describe in words,” says Melinda Hallenbeck-Kostecky, a UMHS art therapist. “Making art that is meaningful to you can provide support that is nontraditional, creative and unique to your personal journey.”

Christian Rasmussen can attest.

The 66-year-old pancreatic cancer patient participated in an art therapy workshop at U-M where each member of the group created a page to be included in a coloring book for cancer patients.

The work was cooperative, allowing each person to share and illustrate his or her own experiences while working toward a common goal.

Says Rasmussen, himself a longtime artist, “You have to talk about yourself to express yourself.”

Before taking action, though, patients should evaluate their options. The American Cancer Society recommends discussing any complementary and alternative therapy with your doctor to ensure it’s a safe and suitable choice.