Creative arts may ease cancer-related anxiety, pain

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Music, art and dance therapy may relieve anxiety and similar symptoms among people with cancer, according to a new analysis of past studies.

Researchers who analyzed results from trials conducted between 1989 and 2011 said the benefits tied to creative arts therapies were small, but similar to those of other complementary techniques such as yoga and acupuncture.

“People with cancer very often feel like their body has been taken over by the cancer. They feel overwhelmed,” said Joke Bradt, a music therapist from Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“To be able to engage in a creative process… that stands in a very stark contrast to sort of passively submitting oneself to cancer treatments,” Bradt, who wrote an editorial published with the new review, told Reuters Health.

The analysis included 27 studies of close to 1,600 people who were randomly assigned to receive some form of creative arts therapy or not, during or after cancer treatment. Patients with breast cancer or blood cancers - such as leukemia and lymphoma - made up the majority of study participants.

Music, art and dance therapy programs varied in how often sessions were conducted and over what time span. More than half of the programs did not involve counseling with trained therapists.

On the whole, people with cancer who were assigned to creative arts treatments reported less depression, anxiety and pain and a better quality of life during the programs than those who were put on a wait list or continued receiving usual care.

For example, in one 2010 study, listening to half an hour of familiar music cut reported pain levels at least in half for 42 percent of hospitalized patients, while just eight percent of those in a comparison group saw relief.

Cancer patients in creative arts therapy did not report being any less tired than those assigned to a control group. And most of the other benefits waned once therapy ended, the researchers reported this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The new paper was co-written by Christopher Morley of the ArtReach Foundation in Atlanta, whose goal is to use creative arts therapies to assist people affected by wars, violence and natural disasters.


Lead author Timothy Puetz, from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, said researchers have believed music and art therapy may help cancer patients “for a long time,” although rigorous studies have been lacking.

“People have really broadened their perspectives on what is health and have moved beyond just the physical,” he told Reuters Health.

“More and more clinicians and certified creative arts therapists… they’re actually reaching out to each other now, and discussions are on the table to try to bring this type of therapy to cancer patients.”

The researchers agreed that more studies are needed to determine the most effective ways to integrate creative arts into the care of cancer patients.

Bradt said working directly with an arts therapist may be most helpful for some patients - but isn’t essential. People looking to refocus away from the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can join a choir or an art class, for example.

“We all know that music or art or just aesthetic beauty in general makes us feel better,” she said. “I do not want to underestimate the power of just the arts by themselves.”

SOURCE: JAMA Internal Medicine, online May 13, 2013.