Art Helps Cancer Patients Recover

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Photo: Cynthia Perlis (left) and Alex Withers (right).Credit: Art for Recovery
Cynthia Perlis (left) and Alex Withers (right). Photo: Art for Recovery

Since 1988, University of California, San Francisco’s Art for Recovery, an art-making, writing, and music program for adults living with cancer, has helped thousands of patients build confidence in themselves and work toward mental wellness. The series is open to anyone dealing with cancer; participants don’t have to be UCSF patients or even under care for a significant health issue.

The effort was renamed the Ernest H Rosenbaum, MD Art for Recovery after Dr. Rosenbaum died in 2010. Rosenbaum, a former UCSF oncologist and hematologist, helped build the comprehensive cancer care program at UCSF’s Mount Zion Hospital in the early-1970s. He conceived the idea of bringing expressive arts to cancer and HIV/AIDS patients.

Roughly 200 patients participate in Art for Recovery’s once-a-week, three-hour Open Art Studios workshop. In- and outpatients can partake of Open Art Studio at the Bakar Cancer Hospital, which started sessions in 2015. Outpatients can engage in Open Art Studio at Mount Zion. According to Cynthia Perlis, who directs the program, the Mount Zion sessions are so full they’re standing room only.

Inpatients can also participate in Art for Recovery from their hospital bed. Non-art activities include writing workshops and visits by musicians at Mount Zion and Mission Bay. Volunteer guitarists, harpists and madrigal singers also perform in hospital lobbies.

“Our Art for Recovery music coordinator holds a Sing-A-Long a few times a month in the Mount Zion lobby; patients, staff, and caregivers…sing along to a musician playing recognizable songs,” said Perlis. 

According to Perlis, Art for Recovery allows adults coping with cancer to become part of a community where they find others living with similar issues. “The program inspires our patients and helps them express how they are feeling through the expressive arts,” said Perlis.

Perlis has guided the program since its inception. Today, its staff includes an artist-in-residence, music coordinator, two harpists, a creative writer, and a writing workshop leader, as well as UCSF medical student volunteers. Participants range in age from 18 to 80.

“We have a tremendous amount of art materials, including acrylic paints, pastels, colored pencils and markers. We are able to show our participants how to work with the art materials and offer prompts to help them express their feelings about illness. We also display participant artwork in two large glass cases in the lobby of the Bakar Cancer Hospital…throughout the clinics and inpatient units. The new UCSF Precision Cancer Medicine Building is set to open in the spring of 2019 (with) patient canvases in all 122 exam rooms and, in addition, work purchased from artists in the Bay Area community,” said Perlis.

According to Perlis, even when they’re not feeling well, patients get out of bed to attend Open Art Studio. “The Art for Recovery workshops bring patients together where they may make a new friend who is also living with a life-threatening illness. These patients are humanity at its very best,” she said.

Amy Van Cleve, Art for Recovery artist in residence, runs Open Art Studio sessions at Mission Bay and Mount Zion. “I first came to UCSF in 2004 with a dear friend battling cancer. I found the Art for Recovery program and volunteered while my friend was receiving treatment,” said Van Cleve.

Van Cleve, who worked for six years as a muralist before joining UCSF, said being in a hospital can be frightening and isolating.  “Art creates an opportunity to expressing what words cannot in the darkest of times. (I) ask people how they are doing. “What color do you like? What symbols have personal meaning to you? What have you always wanted to try artistically but, been afraid?” Then I listen. From what people tell me I am able to create simple, non-threatening projects that can be completed in a short amount of time, no skill required. I always remind people there is no grade for their work, try to keep it fun, and mostly about expressing wherever they are at,” said Van Cleve.

Hideka Suzuki, an Art for Recovery participant, has been out of treatment for five years but still attends workshops in Mission Bay. “The program helps me be self-aware. I express joy, not just fear or stress. The workshops continue to help me get through the day to day,” said Suzuki.  “I was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and it came back in 2013. I have to go back for a scan. I’m very nervous. Art for Recovery helps me get through that.”

Mary Isham, who is living with cancer, said before going to Art in Recovery she didn’t consider herself an artist. “I only did art with my kids. When I came to treatment, I saw the sign for Art for Recovery workshops and followed it. There I met Cindy (Cynthia Perlis). She gave me a little book and colored pencils and told me, “I want you to draw every day.” I did for about four years, and it was transformative. I did classes for seven years with Art for Recovery. It was a very tight and supportive group. Eventually I started identifying as an artist. Now I sell my artwork. I have been in art shows, including the Box Show in Gallery Route One in Point Reyes for the last 12 years,” said Isham.

Isham’s primary art form is painting.  “I use very bright colors. I use them all at once, like in a rainbow. I started out painting with my hands. This helped me feel like I was pushing out the cancer. I started with reds, yellows, and oranges, like there was a fire inside. I wanted to get out my grief, my fear, my sadness. Now I paint joy and light. Art shows me I have a life beyond cancer,” said Isham.

Before being diagnosed with cancer, Isham had practiced adolescent medicine for 25 years with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “I helped start a mental health and reproductive and family services clinic at Mission High School in the late-1980s. We provided everything from detox services to stress reduction classes for teachers. But when I was diagnosed 20 years ago, people wouldn’t even say the word “cancer.” Art for Recovery was my support group,” said Isham.

Alex Withers, a UCSF medical student between her third and fourth year, has volunteered with Art for Recovery, conducting bedside sessions, for the past three and a half years.  “I bring art supplies and work with individual patients who cannot leave their room or might be uncomfortable doing so. Sometimes we utilize all-new art supplies because a patient cannot use what other people have touched,” said Withers.

Withers, a Mission District resident, said oil painting is her medium of choice. Yet she sometimes cannot show patients how to engage in this art form because they’re sensitive to smells. At times it’s not easy to get patients to start work. “People feel very vulnerable. They have had intense experiences. I don’t rush people into it. I develop a relationship with patients first,” said Withers.

Withers said helping patients tap into their creative and artistic abilities produces “the most amazing and beautiful artwork. Everyone has a story to tell. When they realize their emotions, it’s no wonder that the art that they make is so powerful.”

Individuals not receiving care from UCSF who want to participate in Art for Recovery should contact Cynthia Perlis.