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The Power of Imagination

by Cat Vasko

Filed under | Living With Cancer

The Power of Imagination
Patient artwork courtesy of Tracy's Kids

Cat Vasko is editor of SU2C Mag.

Lisa White first realized the therapeutic power of music in 1996 when her son, Gabe, was diagnosed with leukemia. Starting at the age of two, Gabe underwent 38 months of treatment. “He started using music a lot on his own to calm himself down,” White recalls. Gabe’s CD of choice was White Ladder by David Gray; he’d listen to it before bed to help himself get to sleep. “He’ll be ten years off treatment next month,” White says, “and we all still listen to it when we’re tired.”

White knows how lucky her family was: many of the other children being treated at the same time as Gabe didn’t survive. “We felt very grateful,” she says. “And we realized how important it is to help these kids on a daily basis when they’re undergoing years of treatment.”

In January of 2000, after Gabe had finally finished his three-plus years of chemo, White and her family started Rock Against Cancer, a nonprofit foundation based in their hometown of Chapel Hill, NC. “We wanted to have a positive daily impact on these kids’ lives through music,” she says.

As a scientist herself, White researched the concept of music therapy extensively before launching Rock Against Cancer, which provides music therapists to pediatric oncology units and arranges music-related events for kids with cancer. “It had to make sense to me as something that was valuable,” she says. But it didn’t take much research to discover that music therapy has been extensively validated as a way to reduce the intensity of patients’ pain, to alleviate their anxiety and even to decrease the amount of pain medication they need. “Our music therapists are an integrated part of the team that cares for these kids,” she says. “They really help them manage the stress and the pain.”

Tracy Councill knows the power the arts have to help children cope with cancer treatment. In 1991, Councill started an art therapy program at Georgetown University in Washington DC that has, over time, evolved into a freestanding nonprofit called Tracy’s Kids. Much like Rock Against Cancer, Tracy’s Kids supplies art therapists to pediatric oncology units. Studies have shown that kids participating in art therapy experience decreases in stress and anxiety, making them more cooperative with physicians and nurses.

“Kids do artwork because it makes them feel better,” Councill says. “They have painful, troubling, scary experiences, and they have to cooperate, have to be in cahoots with people who are hurting them. It’s hard for them to make sense of it all.”

“This artwork of the girl doing a cartwheel was made by a teen at diagnosis,” says Councill. “She was happy they found the source of pain in her leg, so she could hope to dance again.”

“One of the most interesting and powerful things music therapists do is be at the bedside while the kids are undergoing painful procedures,” White concurs. “The choices are to knock them out with some kind of drug, or music therapists can stand at the bedside and work with the kids to distract them. They do song composition, writing, recording. It helps the kids get their feelings out there.”

Art and music therapy both take an open-ended approach, allowing kids to decide the direction of the activities. Councill emphasizes the importance of control: control over their creations, their environments, their thoughts. “We help them do stuff that reinforces the whole person they are,” she says. “What do I like? What am I good at? It makes them feel much better.” She describes one activity in which young patients are given a hunk of clay and a syringe: “They just stab it a million times to discharge the anger,” she says. “Becoming the one who inflicts the procedures is a very empowering thing. It’s inherently therapeutic to be in control.”

Rock Against Cancer also occasionally takes its efforts outside of the oncology wing and into the venues where famous musicians play to packed houses. “We take kids to concerts to meet the artists and go backstage,” White says. “This year we did two nights with No Doubt, a night with Beyoncé, with Stevie Wonder, with all kinds of people. It’s so much fun. When they’re really a fan of that particular artist, they get such a boost.”

When possible, White even arranges events wherein famous musicians actually visit pediatric oncology units in person. “Sometimes we’ll get a band like Sister Hazel, someone who’s not so huge that we’ll have crowd control issues to deal with, and they’ll go in and make the rounds with us,” she says. “It’s just amazing how live music in the hospital breaks that very somber atmosphere. The doctors and nurses will walk up and say thank you.”

“Breaking the somber atmosphere” could be the mission statement of both fields. Art and music therapists strive above all else to help struggling children escape into their imaginations. “Some artwork is deliberate, meaningful, symbolic,” Councill says. “And some of it is just something to do. The next thing you know, your imagination is teaching you something.”

She describes the artwork of one little girl who, inspired by another patient’s drawing of a dog in a doghouse, decided to make her own version. “In her picture, the doghouse is on the left-hand side of the page, so you only see half,” Councill says. “The dog is in the middle, chained to the house, and just out of its reach is a huge bone. He can’t get to it, because he’s chained up.”

The little girl knew a thing or two about bones: she had just undergone a bone marrow transplant. “She was chained to the doghouse,” Councill says. “It’s like she was showing us her experience, without even knowing it.”


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