For cancer patients, art a needed emotional release

Art therapy
In an Oct. 15, 2010 photo, art therapist Katie Kinzer, center, gets Linda Schreifels, left, and Jo Gwost started on a project while they talk in the Coborn Cancer Center at the CentraCare Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter

By FRANK LEE, St. Cloud Times

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - When Sally Thayer was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she picked up a paintbrush.

"It would allow me not to think about breast cancer for a while ... and allow me to express my anger - there's a lot of anger involved in cancer - and allow me to express my pain," she said.

The 58-year-old part-time bookkeeper from St. Cloud dealt with her roller coaster of emotions by expressing them through art as part of the art therapy program at the Coborn Cancer Center.

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A wide assortment of supplies are provided at the 90-minute group sessions on Thursdays at CentraCare Health Plaza. No art experience is necessary, according to Katie Kinzer, a master's level art therapist who guides the cancer patients and their caregivers in the creative process.

"Sometimes people shy away because they think they're not artists, but it's really just a time for people to come and reflect, and learn a new art skill or coping skill ... and to create self-awareness in a relaxing environment," Kinzer said.

Thayer underwent a partial mastectomy. The cancer had spread into her lymph nodes, so her treatment included chemotherapy and radiation. She was often at Coborn Cancer Center daily, she said, with several appointments a day.

In an Oct. 15, 2010 photo, Jo Gwost works on her collage while she talks about her week, in the Coborn Cancer Center at the CentraCare Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter

"A lot of things raced through my head - disbelief, terror, a lot of fear and panic - the things that you would think of when you're diagnosed with something disastrous, like cancer," said Thayer, whose mother had breast cancer.

Art therapy helps cancer patients and caregivers record their thoughts and feelings in a "visual journal," according to Kinzer, and it is a way to manage pain, depression, anxiety and stress while making new friends in a supportive environment.

"My husband, my church and my friends were very supportive, but as supportive as they were, they couldn't possibly understand (what I was going through), and that's where art therapy comes in," Thayer said.

Coborn Cancer Center began offering the art therapy for free in September; before, a nominal fee was requested of participants to help support the program. About half a dozen usually attend the weekly art therapy sessions, according to Kinzer.

"We just decided we wanted to pilot this - provide it every week and have it free - as a service to the patients," said Kinzer, who primarily works at Clara's House, which deals with children and adolescents with mental health and chemical dependency issues.

"A lot of emotions go along with cancer, as you can imagine. People are kind of looking in the face of death - at least that's what they've told me - and really healing through art is what I'm kind of providing."

In an Oct 15, 2010 photo, Linda Schreifels, right, and Jo Gwost share a hug at the end of art therapy class, as they leave the Coborn Cancer Center at the CentraCare Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter

Linda Schreifels has made paintings, clay models, plaster masks and collages in the art therapy program. The 65-year-old from St. Cloud was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007.

"I was angry at myself for not having the test done sooner than when I did - the colonoscopy," Schreifels said. "Several of my uncles died from cancer, and my mother actually did; she died from colon cancer."

And in December, for the first time in the program's history, participants will exhibit their artworks, probably at the Coborn Cancer Center.

"It takes your mind off everything - no matter whether you have cancer or other issues in your life. It's basically time when you can totally relax," Schreifels said of art therapy.


Information from: St. Cloud Times

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)