Art Therapy Improves Lives of Breast Cancer Survivors

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The arts have taken a beating this week, with various members of Congress — including the father of an opera singer — decrying them as unworthy of inclusion in the stimulus package being finalized on Capitol Hill. However, two new studies suggest involvement in the arts helps students learn, and cancer victims cope.

Between 2001 and 2004, 40 breast cancers survivors undergoing radiation treatment at Umea University Hospital in Sweden took part in a clinical trial. Twenty of them attended weekly hour-long art therapy sessions; 21 did not. All the women completed a series of surveys – one before beginning radiation treatment, another two months into the procedure and a third after six months.

The results show the art therapy had a variety of benefits, which the researchers have detailed over the past three years. Their most recent paper, published in the January 2009 issue of the European Journal of Cancer Care, reports “a significant increase in total health, total quality of life, physical health and psychological health” among the women who participated in art therapy.

Specifically, these women held more positive attitudes regarding their body image and were more hopeful about the future than those who did not participate in art therapy.

These findings, along with previous research finding art therapy improved the women’s coping skills, provide “strong support for the use of art therapy to improve quality of life for women undergoing radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer,” the researchers conclude.

The precise reason the art therapy was effective is not certain, but in the researchers’ interpretation, it became “a tool the women could use” to make sense of what happened to them and “give higher legitimacy to their own interpretations and experience.” In other words, it prompted reflection on how their bodies had changed, and allowed them to reclaim a positive self-image.

The findings add to the evidence of the mental-health benefits of art. Research last year suggested the presence of art posters on office walls decreased the stress and anger levels of men.

In addition, a new study in the journal Social Science Quarterly reports that youngsters who take music lessons or attend concerts with their parents perform better than their peers at reading and math in both early childhood and adolescence.

"Music involvement is a form of cultural capital that seems to provide cognitive and social tools that help students successfully navigate the educational terrain," conclude sociologists Darby Southgate and Vincent Roscigno of Ohio State University.

The evidence that the arts benefit society in a variety of ways has never been more clear. So where are the high-profile advocates who can make that case to Congress?