Art Therapy for People With Cancer

Art therapy is a fairly new field in medicine. Yet art—whether viewing it or creating it—has long been known to have healing effects. For people living with cancer, this therapy may be helpful in many ways. In addition to providing a relaxing escape against the backdrop of treatment anxiety and fear for the future, painting or drawing may help you understand the myriad of emotions that can go along with a diagnosis of cancer. Emotions that are often difficult to express in words.

You don’t have to be an artist, or even like art to benefit. The only requirement is an open mind and the ability to hold a pencil or paintbrush.

Older woman at an easel painting as part of art therapy for cancer
eflon / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

What Exactly Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy can be defined simply as the use of art to promote healing. Art in this sense addresses the physical, emotional, as well as spiritual needs that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Art can be used in an experiential way—such as viewing paintings at a museum or in a book, or in a creative way—such as in painting, drawing, sculpting, beading, or a host of other types of creative activities.

The strong emotions that people experience with cancer are often difficult to portray in words. Yet expressing feelings allows your loved ones to know what you are experiencing—at least to some degree—so they can provide the comfort you need to cope at this time. It may also allow you to express emotions that you don’t even know you have. It’s said by some scientists that emotions are felt first in images and only later in words. For this reason, art can be a way to tap into what you are feeling inside before you can describe it in words.

What Happens During a Session

Painting or drawing for healing is different than creating a work of art that might be displayed in an art gallery. The focus of an art therapy session is on you alone. The purpose is to allow you to express your feelings, begin to understand your feelings, and hopefully reduce stress in the process. In this sense, there is not a specific technique that is recommended. Whatever tools and whatever style of painting bring you joy and peace is the goal. In many of the studies on art therapy, landscapes were a common theme for people living with cancer. But abstract drawing or even finger painting might be what appeals to you. Everyone is different.

To get started on your own, find a comfortable place in your home. Some people enjoy listening to music while they paint, while others prefer silence. The best tip I was given was to “just start.” You don’t have to have an image in mind or any idea at all about what you plan to paint. Just begin and see what unfolds. That is the expressive part of art therapy. Below are links to finding the resources you will need as well as ideas for beginning to paint.


Art therapy has, in a sense, been around as long as people have existed on earth. Even before the written word, art was used to express emotions ranging from elation and joy to grief and physical pain. During the 1900s, scientists began to see that art could play a role in the diagnosis and treatment of people with mental and physical illnesses, and in 1969 the American Art Therapy Association was formed. This organization educates the public about the use of art therapy in medicine and is responsible for setting standards for registered art therapists.

How Does Art Heal?

It’s not known exactly how art can help with healing. Amidst the tension of cancer treatments, it can provide an opportunity for quiet and relaxation—a time to do what you wish to do alone. Many people find that taking the time to paint helps to change their attitude. If you are feeling discouraged, you might feel more motivated to continue on with treatment. If you are feeling anxious, you might experience a calming and peace.

Scientists who have studied art therapy have found that painting changes brain wave patterns. It may also alter hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Painting has been shown to change the perception of pain—which in turn can change your outlook on the world.

Benefits for People With Cancer

Creating art has been shown to help with physical and emotional well-being. Other benefits for people with cancer may include:

Improved Mental Health/Emotional Well-Being

a 2018 systematic review looking at the effect of art therapy for women with breast cancer, found significant benefits that included a reduction in anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Several other studies have also demonstrated a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Several studies have found that creating art lessens the symptoms of anxiety and depression that can accompany a diagnosis of cancer. Of even greater note, is that this benefit may last for a long time. One study of art therapy in breast cancer patients found that the sessions resulted in significant long-term improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Benefits During Chemotherapy

One study on the use of art therapy during chemotherapy found that it was helpful in three primary ways. First, it was thought to be a relaxing and creative outlet. Second, participants felt that it gave them an opportunity to feel listened to. And third, it provided an avenue to express emotions and search for meaning in their lives.

Benefits During Radiation Therapy

Another study looked at the role of art in women who were going through radiation therapy for breast cancer. Those who participated had improvements in total health, total quality of life, physical health and psychological health. Positive benefits were seen in body image, coping with systemic (whole body) side effects of treatment, and in “future perspectives" or a sense of hope.

Benefits During Hospitalization

Research has shown that art therapy may reduce the need for pain medications, increase compliance (that is the willingness to use drugs that can help with cancer) with medication, and decrease the length of hospital stays.

Social Support

In some cases, art therapy has provided the opportunity for social support for people who are not actively part of a cancer support group.

  • Improved Quality of Life – Through developing a new form of self-expression, painting was found to have positive effects on personal growth, coping, and social interaction for people living with cancer.
  • End-of-Life Benefits – One study of terminal cancer patients in Taiwan evaluated the effect of art appreciation and hands-on painting. The researchers found that creating art was helpful in bringing these patients to express their feelings about terminal cancer. In addition, 70 percent described the experience as relaxing, and 53 percent of the people claimed to feel better physically after their artistic experience.

How to Get Started

One of the beauties of art therapy is that you can get started anywhere and at any time. A few ideas to help you get started include:

  • Checking out art books at your local library or bookstore. If you are recovering from cancer treatment, this is a good opportunity to give a friend an answer to that question,“What can I do to help?” An excellent source is The Art Therapy Sourcebook. Other books that may be helpful include Art is a Way of Knowing and Visual Journaling
  • Alternatively, when someone asks what they can do for you, request a set of colored pencils and a drawing pad, or a set of watercolors.
  • Are classes or groups available in your community? Some hospitals sponsor programs that feature art for healing. Check with your cancer care team. If a program like this isn’t present at your cancer center—and you’re at a point in your treatment when you feel both well and motivated to initiate such a program, ask your cancer center to check out examples of programs that are currently in place, such as the Moffitt Cancer Center Arts in Medicine program in Florida, the Expressive Arts Therapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, or the Smillow Cancer Hospital Art Program at Yale.


From galleries of paintings to art supplies and ideas, here are some ideas that have helped others get started.

Ideas - Check out "painting ideas" online for ideas on what to paint.

Supplies - It can be frustrating to have a thought to express, and then realize you don’t have the art tools available to go ahead with your idea. Some art supplies you may wish to have on hand include:

  • An easel
  • A paint palette and palette knife
  • An apron to protect your clothes
  • Paintbrushes
  • Paints - many people find acrylic paints easy for starting out
  • Cleaning towels or paper towels plus a water container

Gallery Viewing - If you enjoy viewing works of art, consider looking up some of the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, or check out the series "Americans in Paris 1860 to 1900." Oncology on Canvas

If you’ve started an art project inspired by your cancer journey, you may want to consider entering it in the “Oncology on Canvas” contest. Of course, the most important use of art is for expression and relaxation. Painting should not become a competition that adds stress to your journey. That said, some people find that the works they have created may inspire others as well and wish to share. If so, this is a wonderful venue. Patients, loved ones of cancer patients, and healthcare providers are invited yearly to share the life-affirming changes in their lives expressed in art. Or if you are into art appreciation instead of hands-on expression, viewing some of the previous submissions may warm your heart and nourish your soul.

Add a Little Music

For those of you who enjoy listening to music while you paint, the combination of art and music may have double the benefits. Music therapy for cancer patients, whether it entails playing music or simply enjoying music played by others, appears to have a number of benefits for those living with cancer.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."