Art therapy can help cancer patients cope with the anxiety, depression, and pain of cancer treatments and improve their overall quality of life, according to new research from the National Institutes of Health. 

About 40 percent of all cancer patients supplement their standard therapy with some kind of complementary therapy to reduce psychological symptoms such as fatigue, pain, anxiety, and depression, according to the study authors. 

The reports that patients who experience pain, those with advanced cancer, and those who take certain medications may have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety during treatment. 

Nutritional supplements, regular exercise, and meditation are among the ways cancer patients can mitigate problematic side effects from cancer therapies. 

For many, art may be the path to a calmer, less painful treatment regimen.

Art Therapy’s Positive Effect on Cancer Patients

Timothy W. Puetz, the 2014 Presidential Management Fellow, and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, wanted to study the effectiveness of creative art therapies, such as music therapy, dance therapy, and other forms of creative expression for dealing with symptoms associated with cancer treatment. 

They did a meta-analysis of 27 trials involving 1,576 cancer patients. Researchers found that creative art therapies can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain, while improving quality of life. However, the effects did not last long after patients finished therapy. 

The creative therapies also did not help with feelings of fatigue, another common side effect of cancer treatments. 

The magnitude of the positive effects on pain and mental health was similar to that of other complementary therapies, specifically mindfulness techniques, acupuncture, yoga, and exercise, researchers wrote in the study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Other Applications for Art Therapy

Art therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions in addition to the side effects of cancer treatment.

Creative therapies—from poetry writing to pottery making—help people express their emotions during difficult times. Patients with mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and even attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit. In fact, increased creativity has been linked to many of these conditions. 

A study of 60 college students—half with ADHD and half without—showed that those with ADHD had higher creativity scores across the board and showed a greater preference for brainstorming and generating ideas than those without the disorder.

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