Creativity and Healing: Making Cancer Magic

September 2020 Vol 11, No 9


Pediatric Cancer

Making art and telling stories with patients can lead to profound healing, according to Sharon Chappell, PhD, breast cancer survivor, author, and educator at Cal State Fullerton.

“I wrote poetry during my cancer, and I made art during my year of wrangling 4 different types of hormone medications,” she said at the AONN+ 2020 Virtual Midyear Conference. “Creativity and imagination saved me; I’m certain of it.”

Dr Chappell is author of the children’s book The Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! as well as a book of poetry she wrote and illustrated during her own cancer treatment and recovery, titled Wet Wings (a nod to emerging from a chrysalis like a butterfly). In an AONN+ virtual session on creativity and healing, she described some of the invaluable artistic processes that helped her through her own cancer journey based on both her own healing and her education training.

In 2017, Dr Chappell’s father died of brain cancer 3 days after her own breast cancer diagnosis. “I’ve been navigating my own breast cancer for 2.5 years,” she said. “I want to share ways in which the arts, imagination, and creativity facilitated my own healing and saved my emotional well-being during cancer.” She hopes that navigators will take some of these activities and use them to “break silences around emotions and help families with their own healing as they’re going through cancer.”

Before reading some of her poetry aloud in the session, she asked the attendees to think about the word “healing,” and to express on paper—be it through writing, drawing, painting, or scribbling—what that word meant to them. “When I think about the word ‘healing,’ I think about the engagement of mind, body, and spirit,” she continued. “And you all as navigators are engaged in the work and in the art of healing each day.”

She said that since her diagnosis, she has always considered cancer to be her “gift.”

“For so long I had been in a chrysalis. But as a 44-year-old woman with cancer, I was finally beginning to break open my chrysalis and to understand what my healing meant,” she said. “I’d been working so hard to heal since I was 8 or 9 years old, and finally I was healing. I was demanding that I deserved to heal, and that I was enough.”

She repeated that mantra to herself time and time again: “I’m enough.” She wrote down those words over and over, and she told herself each and every day that she had the body she needed to heal.

“I approached every day with that sense of hope, positivity, and investment in the moment of healing,” she said. “I didn’t regret a moment of it, and I didn’t feel that it should have been any other way. It was what I needed to get better from my own childhood pain and abuse and my struggling marriage, and now here I was, breaking out of that chrysalis.”

She asked attendees to move on to a watercolor exercise as she read another set of poems. She encouraged them to exchange the paintbrush between hands, using their nondominant hand as well, and to release the idea of making something realistic-looking or something that “looks good.” She asked them to focus on their breathing—in through the nose and out through the mouth—exploring the materials in front of them as well as the feelings in their bodies as they simply breathed and painted. “Let your thoughts come and go. They won’t stop, but let them move in and out, flowing like water, making no judgments,” she said. “Just notice them and paint.”

She urged navigators to employ some of these art exercises with their own patients, as it helps them move through and process their own emotions. She said that people are left feeling “empty and sterile” when emotion and compassion are not the focus of healing.

“Compassion is at the heart of our healing work with patients, families, and children,” she said. “Although we may not know the complexity of our patients’ backgrounds or their experiences outside of the hospital, we as healers can allow them to feel a wide range of emotion in their bodies, minds, and spirits, and this helps.”

She wrote The Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! during her chemotherapy treatment as a way of connecting with her daughter, who was 11 at the time. “It was how I imagined she was responding to my cancer,” she explained. “I knew she needed more resources, more love, and more connection, in addition to me.” So she created the idea of the “little green monster” as a way to reach out to other families going through cancer. “The little green monster can be anything you want,” she said. “For me, it’s my daughter’s imagination.” The book also includes helpful cancer definitions and other resources to help children understand a parent’s or other family member’s cancer diagnosis.

Precancer and postcancer, she recalls her daughter referring to her as “Old Mommy” and “New Mommy.”

“I thought, who was Old Mommy? And who is New Mommy? Because she’s not here yet; I don’t understand any of it, and I’m swirling,” she recalled. But art, she said, helped her answer those questions and define who she would become.

“Our motto at The Little Green Monster Project is ‘read, feel, create, heal.’ So, as you go forth, I ask you to consider using the arts to enhance your healing work with each other, with your children, with your family, and with your patients,” she said. “I’m certain that being creative and using my imagination kept me in touch with the soul inside of me. When my body was doing its work, on its own timeline, I needed to know that I was still me.”

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Last modified: August 10, 2023

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