Art and cancer ... it's a healing process
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Art and cancer ... it's a healing process

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A popular program that has connected artists with cancer patients and cancer survivors since 2016 was threatened with a knock-out punch when the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-in-place restrictions went into place statewide in March.

But like their students stubbornly battling the disease, a team of determined leaders — from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Samaritan Health Services and Stahlbush Island Farms — refused to take a 10-count.

Their solution: modify the hands-on program — which puts artists in front of a classroom for 90 minutes at a time — to a video-based virtual classroom for 12 to 25 students at a time.

Art teachers Lisa Abia-Smith of the University of Oregon and Karla Chambers of Stahlbush Island Farms differ as to how well they like the new system, but they agree wholeheartedly that being able to continue reaching out and offering people a chance to dissolve the daily stresses of life — especially cancer — is vitally important. They are joined in the video sessions by fellow art teacher Jade Chambers.

And whether students are six-feet apart or miles apart, they share a common bond, Karla Chambers said.

“With each class, I can see apprehension, anxiety in their faces,” Chambers said. “But, within 10 or 12 minutes, that is gone. They lighten up, they start to talk to each other. It happens every time. It’s like they flip a switch in their brain and their creative juices start to flow.”

Chambers said it happens whether she is working with cancer patients, cancer survivors, health care providers or medical students.

Chambers said that she recently jotted down the feelings of medical students as they were about to begin a class. They used words like anxiety, lost, panicked, tired, overwhelmed and sad.

“But after the class, they used words like lively, calm, mellow, relaxed and inspiring,” Chambers said.

The program gives people the opportunity to remember cancer is only one part of their life.

Even more timely

All members of the Art Heals team say that perhaps the program is needed even more during the COVID-19 pandemic when people and families have been closed off to the rest of the world in many ways.

Abia-Smith said she first connected the link between art and healing when she taught art to blind people in San Francisco.

“It was in the 1990s and a time when an AIDS diagnosis basically meant an end of life situation,” Abia-Smith said. “Many of my students lost their sight due to AIDS. We found that through art, our students found solace and engagement with others.”

As an outreach program for the Schnitzer Museum, Abia-Smith first brought art programs to young students and that is when the concept of expanding the effort to include cancer patients was fomented.

And the fact Abia-Smith and Chambers “kept bumping into each other” added weight to the concept. Chambers, a self-taught artist whose works are shown in galleries from San Francisco to New York, had already been involved in using art to teach children about nutrition and farming.

Six video-based sessions have been held so the video process may continue as an outreach opportunity even when face-to-face sessions resume.

Abia-Smith said participants receive a packet of paints and other supplies needed for the session ahead of time. The program is free to participants, thanks to sponsors.

Chambers said she likes to emphasize that the artists don’t need expensive brushes or easels.

Student and breast-cancer survivor Anne Pettingill of Albany supports Chambers’ claim.

“What I love about Karla is she gives you permission to do whatever you want,” Pettingill said. “You don’t have to follow her instructions line-by-line. She gives you a lot of instruction, but also empowers you to create what you are feeling at the time.”

Pettingill said Chambers is “very down to earth and teaches us how to use every day things like a plastic spoon. She’s very encouraging and cognizant of the uniqueness of survivorship. Sometimes, we even talk about that when we are creating art.”

Pettingill said she has participated in numerous Cancer Resource Centers art programs and finds that the video-based program is allowing her family members to take part as well.

“It’s an awesome way for people in similar situations to come together and explore how healing works in a creative sense,” Pettingill said. “Now, my whole family can sit around the table and create art together.”

Sisters on job

Holly Almond is a nurse practitioner with Samaritan’s Hematology and Oncology department. She and Lisa Abia-Smith are sisters.

Almond said she first realized the value of art in the healing process when Abia-Smith was working in San Francisco, eliminating barriers between art and the blind.

“I saw how important it is to take away the barriers and provide access to art to everyone,” Almond said. “That translates to cancer patients as well who may have been hunkered down at home waiting to die.”

Almond said she has had patients tell her they don’t want cancer to identify them.

“They said it’s a piece of their life, but not all of it,” Almond said. “It’s a part of their history but it doesn’t define their future. They are moms, musicians, sisters.”

Abia-Smith said she had a student who had painted boxes that represented portions of her life and the smallest box represented cancer.

“It was miniscule,” Abia-Smith said. “Art gives people the language to describe those feelings.”

Similar programs operate domestically and internationally, Abia-Smith said.

The local program will soon begin gathering hard data quantifying how art aids the healing process, Abia-Smith said. The work will be supported by a $50,000 Barker Foundation grant.

“We will use the Johnson Scale of Empathy as a measuring tool for validating the findings,” Abia-Smith said. “We will be able to study blood pressure and breathing rates among other things.”

Abia-Smith said 20 medical schools are partnering with museums on the project.

The video process is not perfect, all admit.

“I like to walk around and interact with the students,” Chambers said. “I like to show them brush strokes. Doing this by video is more cumbersome. For me, it’s like teaching with two hands tied behind my back. But, it’s working.”

Chambers said it is important that the program emphasize a “come as you are” attitude.

Almond agreed, saying Cancer Resource Centers want patients to have a holistic healing experience.

“It’s important that we are not just about writing a prescription,” Almond said. “It’s important they can learn to express themselves as part of their healing process. We have to think out of the box to meet our patients’ individual needs.”

Stephanie Hagerty is the ambassador for the Samaritan’s Cancer Resource Centers and said anyone interested in participating in the Art Heals project may call her at 541-812-5880 to register for an upcoming class.

The art museum at the University of Oregon opened on June 10, 1933. It was designed by Ellis F. Lawrence and was constructed to house the 3000-plus piece Murray Warner Collection of Oriental Art.

The museum was renovated starting in 2002 and opened in 2005 as the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

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