Life After Cancer: Moving Forward with Art Therapy

This is my personal philosophy,” says McLaren Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor Gail Singer. “We all carry a portfolio in our heads of Norman Rockwell paintings. When one of those images is destroyed, we grieve its loss. We can never get it back again. Art Therapy uses this grief/loss period to create a new painting based on new realities.”

Hired for the program when it started in 2009, Singer sets herself and, ultimately, McLaren apart from other art therapy programs through an extensive background in counseling. Singer assesses patients’ and caregivers’ coping progress and, through art therapy, provides the emotional and therapeutic tools to help them move forward with their post-cancer lives. “Some people are most comfortable communicating visually rather than verbally,” says Singer. “As an art therapist, I’m trained to know how to bring people back from the often powerful, very emotional experience of expressing themselves in a creative manner.” Oh, and she’s a cancer survivor.

“The incredible benefit for having been through it (cancer treatment),” says Singer, “I can be very direct and use myself as an example. It gives me “street credibility,” she adds with a laugh, “But in all seriousness, I get it. I understand the stress, anxiety and uncertainty that come with cancer before and after treatment. The anxiety stays even after you’re given a clean bill of health.” During treatment, many people are in “survival mode,” explains Singer. “They’re focused on their fight, their treatment and surviving. So, actually, a lot of the people I see are post-treatment, because, when the fight’s over, they feel a sense of ‘what now’?”

Research shows people who don’t get some kind of therapeutic intervention, during or after treatment, experience increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression that can deepen in the years following treatment, explains Singer. “I once led a project with a women’s support group,” recalls Singer. “Participants were asked to write about or draw a picture of what cancer took away from them. The answers included, ‘I found out right before Christmas,’ or ‘My surgery was on my wedding anniversary.’” Through the Healing Through Art program, McLaren’s collaboration with the Flint Institute of Arts, Singer leads workshops to help participants express their fears, hopes and new realities through artistic means. “With cancer, you’ll never get back that old Norman Rockwell painting; but with art therapy you can create a new one. The new one won’t be ‘less’ than the painting you had before; it will just be different.”