Art, Anxiety and Cancer

Anxiety is something that touches the lives of all of us who go through a cancer journey. It begins with getting your head round a diagnosis and the anxious feelings that accompany coming to terms with impending treatment you don’t want to be having. It continues with the stress of waiting for the results of scans that show how successful your treatment has been. To me this was nothing compared to the anxiety produced by feelings emerging after I had gone into remission. Feelings that I had bottled up in order to face the situation I found myself in and to be strong for my husband, child and family. Feelings that would rise up unexpectedly when life didn’t quite go to plan.

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Yet, throughout this challenging time there was one thing that was guaranteed to lift me out of this, even if only for a short time: art. Ever since I can remember there is nothing I have enjoyed more than sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper and capturing whatever is in my head. As a child I would sit and draw what I had seen in nature. I drew so much that I became quite skilled at it. As a teenager, my love of doodling got me through some tricky years when I needed to escape from the world. I carried on as an adult, not always being able to find the time to put paintbrush or pencil to paper but enjoying every moment when I did.

And of course most recently, I used art to get me through some very tricky moments after being diagnosed with non Hodgkin lymphoma last year. I sat in my hospital bed wondering how on earth I would get my head round having to have chemotherapy in a few days’ time. A friend had thoughtfully brought me in a sketch pad and pencils and I spent many hours drawing pictures of my baby son, who I only saw at evening visiting time. It didn’t take away the difficulty of the situation, but it took me away to another place, and my anxiety lifted.

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Once at home, undergoing treatment and then moving into remission, I didn’t find it so easy to make time to create artworks. Apart from looking after my own health, my son was my priority and the only real time I had for myself was when he napped. The only way round this I could find was giving myself fifteen minutes each day to draw. This was enough and slowly, as each day passed, ideas in my head for paintings came to life. At this time of day, apart from needing to sleep myself, I felt a real need to switch my mind off and art helped me to do this. To me, it has always felt like a kind of meditation. By focussing on representing what I am drawing on a page, it is almost as if I am switching off a part of my brain. Objects become shapes and curves and worries become distant memories.The act of being creative not only reduces anxiety but also makes me feel that I am moving on to a new place in my life, something so necessary after what I have been through.

Art therapy can be valuable in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings that need to emerge. I recently attended an art therapy taster session organised by the charity Victoria’s Promise for our women’s cancer network. We were encouraged to create a picture showing what the group meant to us. Mine depicted rays of sunshine surrounded by flowers. I felt this was representative of the way the group was supporting me and the other ladies in moving forward in life positively. After looking more closely at a swirl I had drawn in the centre of the picture, I realised that it represented a cancer cell, present as a reminder of the anxiety that I was still going through as I moved forward in life. I had not expected this exercise to be so revealing in such a simple way.

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I do not believe that there are people who are incapable of being creative. We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves. It is possible to learn how to draw through various techniques which involve seeing what you are drawing as a collection of lines or shapes rather than familiar objects. Many people are told when they are young that they cannot draw or produce a good piece of artwork, which leads to a feeling of inadequacy. Adult colouring books have made art accessible to everyone, however, and are especially popular, perhaps because focusing on details in a picture and choosing colours to fill in the shapes can be so relaxing and therapeutic.
In the spirit of art and creativity helping to overcome anxiety, I am planning a charity art exhibition together with SamSpaces. This will not only raise money but also awareness of the journey that cancer can take us on, whether that be during or post treatment. We are planning to exhibit work by artists whose lives have been touched by cancer, whether as a patient or as a supporter, friend or relative. A section of the exhibition will be devoted to work by those who do not consider themselves to be artists, but have expressed through art what they are going through. If you are interested in participating, please email Sam or comment here……. Watch this space for more information!

By Sarah Govind.

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