As well as the conventional care received during cancer treatment that addresses the actual cancer, there is a myriad of supportive care options that have become available. These aim to alleviate cancer symptoms, ease treatment side effects, enhance quality of life by improving sleep and mood and maximise the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

The personal power we have to influence our own individual care is not a conversation commonly discussed along the routine treatment journey. Although it is important to receive treatment by a group of professionals whom we feel we can trust, there are many simple things we can do personally to enhance that care. These start as clearly as diet and lifestyle changes and reach as abstract as mindfulness practices.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”.

In Mindfulness For Life written by Dr Stephen McKenzie and Dr Craig Hassed (Exisle Publishing 2012), the evidence-informed physical benefits of mindfulness are summarised as reduced inflammation, improved immunity, reduced cortisol, increased melatonin, reduced metabolic syndrome, improved genetic repair and fewer genetic mutations, slower genetic ageing and better pain and symptom management.

All of these direct physical effects have an impact on both cancer treatment and on healing from cancer treatment which has further implications for maintaining wellness after completing active cancer treatment. There are many varieties of supportive care and mindfulness practices including meditation, exercise and breath work and a less known modality gaining popularity is Art Therapy.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art Therapy can be defined as “a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modelling, used as a remedial or diagnostic activity”. Different approaches include guided sessions with formally qualified art therapists on which most of the published evidence in the literature is based and can range to the informal and individualised versions that patients choose to adopt.

How Does It Work?

Conceptually, art therapy is a tool to bring us in to the present moment. It is a way of both connecting to how we feel as well as providing an outlet for its expression. In so doing it ensures our true feelings are not suppressed. It is also a way of communicating our feelings to others if we so choose. Art Therapy also provides an outlet for our creative expression which diverts our energy into a productive channel rather than a destructive one.

The body has a physiological response to this activity in a number of ways. The first is to place our body into a state of relaxation which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and causes a boost to the immune system. It also triggers the release of hormones that make us feel good such as endorphins which improve our mood, reduces the levels of hormones that make us feel bad, such as cortisol and increases the levels of melatonin which improves sleep.

This hormonal environment also impacts on many of the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment including improvements in pain and nausea. In this state of relaxation our body is more likely to achieve genetic repair, healing and recovery to both achieve and maintain wellness.

Published Literature?

A Swedish study published in 2006 randomly allocated a group of 41 women receiving post-surgical radiotherapy for breast cancer to 1 hour per week of formalised art therapy. The study showed that women who received the art therapy intervention coped better than those who did not and this result persisted after therapy was complete.

Another study published in 2005 randomised 111 women with a variety of cancer types to art therapy or not and found that those who received the intervention had reduced symptoms of distress and improved quality of life compared with those who did not receive art therapy.

An overview published in 2010 documented reduced levels of anxiety and depression, improved quality of life and positive effects on personal growth, coping, self-expression and social interaction. However, a systematic review published in 2011 concluded that due to heterogeneity across studies, more consolidated evidence would be helpful.


Art Therapy is a mindfulness practice that has the potential to improve outcomes in cancer care and is a worthwhile option for patients and health professionals to consider.


  1. McKenzie S and Hassed C. Mindfulness For Life. Exsile Publishing 2012
  2. Oster I, Svensk C, Magnusson E et al. Art therapy improves coping resources: A randomized, controlled study among women with breast cancer. Palliative and Supportive Care. Volume 4, Issue 1, March 2006, pp. 57-64.
  3. Monti DA, Peterson C, Shakin Kunkel EJ et al. A randomized, controlled trial of mindfulness‐based art therapy (MBAT) for women with cancer. Psycho-Oncology. Volume 15, Issue 5, May 2006, pp. 363-373
  4. Geue K, Goetze H, Buttstaedt M et al. An overview of art therapy interventions for cancer patients and the results of research. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Volume 18, Issues 3-4, June-August 2010, pp 160-170
  5. Wood MJM, Molassiotis A and Payne S. What research evidence is there for the use of art therapy in the management of symptoms in adults with cancer? A systematic review. Psycho-Oncology. 20: 135-145 (2011)


Written by Dr Carol Haddad (BMedSci MBBS FRANZCR)

About The Author:

Dr. Carol Haddad is an Integrative Oncologist based in Sydney, Australia. Her approach combines a formal qualification in Radiation Oncology with her passion for alternative and complementary therapy. She has an emphatic belief in holistic cancer care and the power of the mind to achieve wellness in the body. She offers consultation services in-person or remotely as well as seminars and workshops. To find out more please visit or email