Art acts as treatment at children’s cancer clinic: Painting an outlet for expression

The Miami Herald

August 23, 2001

By Yohana de la Torre

Paintings brighten the walls, brushes bristle in small hands, canvases decorate easels and young artists create art with every stroke of the brush.

But this is no art class. It’s a cancer clinic. And the artists here face daily struggles with life-threatening diseases.

Painting helps the patients express themselves and helps take their minds off their illness.

The Arts in Medicine at Jackson Memorial Hospital program began in 1989, thanks to the Children’s Cancer Fund and a grant from the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council.

“The program provides children with an outlet for expression,” says Letitia Cason, certified child life specialist and director of the Arts in Medicine program. “And [it] benefits kids by giving them the opportunity to be around professional artists and cultural activities.”

Christopher Nicholas, 8, becomes an artist every time he comes to the center.

Christopher was diagnosed in November 1996 with leukemia. After a remission, he recently relapsed and is back in chemotherapy.

“I’ve been coming here a long time,” Christopher says. “I can’t go to school, so I have a tutor back at home. And I like coming here, everybody helps me get better.”

The center treats patients with cancer, sickle cell disease, hemophilia and other life-threatening blood disorders.

It serves as a meeting place for children and families who are battling cancer, providing them medical and psychological help.

“Cancer is a life of its own that takes over every thought of the day from the moment of diagnosis,” says Cason. “The program is a unique way of treatment that opens a new world for the children and the people we encourage to come.”

Local professional artists Hejina Rodrigues, Xavier Cortada and Gustavo Loza contribute to the program by exposing children to different media and styles of art expression.

Everything the kids do gets hung on the walls — a source of pride for parents and patients alike.

Projects include mosaic murals of shapes, plants and animals on the ceiling panels of a treatment room. A multicolored art quilt hangs on the farthest wall of the clinic. The children painted the canvas pieces and their mothers stitched the individual canvases together.

In addition, the Healing Hands project — outlined and painted handprints on fabric — attracts onlookers to a small play area in the center.

The clinic also offers the children books, televisions and computers.

“This acts as a complementary treatment to prolong patients’ lives,” says Cason. “They get to explore the arts, empower the disease and have a positive outlook about life and the procedures.”

Eleven-year-old Keondre Collins stands before an easel, massaging a canvas with blue paint as he says, “I try to be like Leonardo da Vinci, but I failed, but it doesn’t matter because I have fun. Everybody says I’m funny and a clown, so I want to be a stand-up comedian.”

Cason, for one, believes keeping the kids happy and optimistic helps them respond better to their treatment.

But children are not the only ones who benefit from the art program. Many parents sit and paint with the children.

“The objective is to help patients and their families deal with emotions surrounding cancer through artistic expression,” says Cason. “Also meeting other parents who are experiencing similar problems helps them cope.”

Family games, outdoor events and small parties are planned to promote unity among the families and give them an escape from the stressful reality.

Linda Nicholas, Christopher’s mother, brings him to the center several times a week for treatment.

She says the art program has helped Christopher and taught him to understand his disease.

She admits having fear about his illness, but says: “The fear is not like it used to be. He is a strong, real strong little boy. And I have faith that this time the cancer will go away for good. All I want is for my little boy to be healthy.”