Creative arts therapy could be a meaningful intervention to boost quality of life for children living with cancer, according to study results published in the Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nursing.

Pediatric cancer is among the leading causes of death from disease among children in the United States. It is estimated that 10,470 children and adolescents will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,050 will die this year. Children with cancer experience symptoms of the disease and side effects from its treatment, which can lead to anguish and diminished quality of life.

“I am really passionate about not just throwing medicines at these kids. They are so tired of taking medication for their symptoms,” lead study author Jennifer Raybin, MSN, RN, CPNP, of the Colorado University Cancer Center, said in a press release. “It’s important to think about the mind-body connection and any kind of integrative and complementary therapies we could add that can help them process the physical and psychological symptoms.”

Raybin and colleagues explored whether creative arts therapy would improve quality of life for pediatric cancer patients between the ages of 3 and 17.

Unaccompanied creative activities can help people cope with disease symptoms and treatment side effects, as well as positively affecting their mood. But in this study, creative arts therapy was done under the guidance of a trained therapist who took into account the child’s mental health needs and suggested a tailored creative intervention.

The researchers recruited 98 children and adolescents with cancer, with an average age of 7.8 years. The children and their parents completed assessments that measured quality of life, emotional responses and posture before and after therapy.

The creative arts therapist customized interventions in an attempt to help the children channel their emotions. Some kids made mini-me dolls from cloth while others modified their radiation masks into art pieces. Still others chose movement aided by a variety of meaningful props, for instance, using a parachute to support their loss of physical motion.

A total of 83 children and adolescents were included in the final analysis. Of these, 18 received no art therapy, 32 participated in fewer sessions of therapy and 33 attended a higher number of sessions.

The researchers found that children who participated in creative arts therapy and their parents had better quality of life. Therapy also improved the children’s posture. Over time, the researchers noted that posture changed in response to their changing mood and sense of self.

“We looked in the physical therapy literature and found a posture measure,” said Raybin. “We looked at the kids’ posture over time. At first, I thought, ‘For sure this won’t turn out to be significant.’ And lo and behold, it did. It is related to quality of life. We compared that posture measure to surveys, and the kids that were more hunched over also had worse quality of life and chose a sadder face on the Faces Scale.”

Since posture seemed to improve with art therapy, the researchers suggest that it could be a quantifiable biomarker for improved quality of life. More research is needed to establish this as a reliable measure.

“Curing cancer isn’t enough,” Raybin said. “Creative arts therapy helps patients negotiate the physical and psychological issues surrounding serious illness, while providing an enjoyable aspect to otherwise difficult treatment.”

Click here to read the study abstract in the Journal of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nursing.
Click here for more news about childhood cancer.