Healing Through Art Therapy
For Shannon McGinn, art had always been a way to help other people to heal. With a master’s degree in art therapy, she had worked as a registered art therapist at several New Jersey prisons. Though she knew the therapeutic value of art, Ms. McGinn never realized the extent of that healing until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29 in September 2005. Then it was her turn to receive the benefits of art therapy at The Cancer Center of Saint Barnabas Medical Center.
“Art creation breaks down barriers that might exist if you were speaking face to face with someone,” she says. “You can focus on the work while also sharing your feelings with others. I knew I could talk about stuff while I was creating and I would always feel so much better on the ride home.”
Though she had no family history of breast cancer, Ms. McGinn was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer and had her left breast removed by Elissa Santoro, M.D., attending general surgeon at Saint Barnabas. Two small invasive tumors were found in the breast tissue and she began three months of chemotherapy. Months later, Ms. McGinn decided to also have her right breast removed. Another small mass was found in that breast, although a biopsy confirmed that is was benign.
Now a law student, Ms. McGinn met art therapist Stephanie Buck M.PS, A.T.R., and began to attend some of the group art sessions, as well as scheduled individual sessions with Ms. Buck. She started a series of clay sculptures, several busts with closed eyes and smooth, bald heads. For Shannon, the heads illustrated both the trauma of losing hair to chemotherapy—the inability to hide the sickness any longer––and the concept that baldness does not necessarily have to be bad. “I wanted to create pieces of artwork that were bold so that people would have some positive connection to them,” says Ms. McGinn, who has since returned to law school in Miami and will continue to fly back to Saint Barnabas every three weeks for remaining treatments.
Many people are enjoying and being inspired by the work of Ms. McGinn and other cancer patients at Saint Barnabas through “A Creative Healing: Patient Art Exhibition,” currently displayed at the Medical Center. The exhibition can be viewed Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. Works displayed include acrylic and watercolor paintings, clay sculpture, mixed media and collage.
“The most important thing about this work is not to create masterpieces, but rather to express yourself,” says Ms. Buck, an art therapist for 30 years. “This art room is full of joy very often even though people are talking about hard things. The creative process itself is profound, potentially joyful, and healing.”
Ms. Buck relates that those who create artwork speak of the sense of empowerment they feel in a health situation that otherwise results in feelings of helplessness, anxiety and fear. Through art, which also includes written forms of expression such as journaling, patients can transform these emotions. Anxieties and fears can be addressed safely in a supportive environment. Discovering, recognizing and using inner resources allows for the strengthening of those resources. Patients’ emotions and thoughts can be transformed into something hopeful, symbolic, and often beautiful.
After surveying the impressive range of outstanding works of art, Ms. Buck tentatively approached the artists with the idea of an exhibition as a meaningful way to share the art with others. She was pleased to find such a positive response to the idea.
“The artists were very excited about the exhibition and extremely proud to make the choice to share their work with other people,” says Ms. Buck. “There is so much profound work and it is very meaningful to share it.”
For the official opening on June 14, works of art were framed and hung or mounted on displays that were often accompanied by the artist’s thoughts on his or her work. Friends, relatives, physicians and staff from throughout the hospital attended and wrote comments about the experience in a guest book. Since then, several hundred people have viewed the exhibit.
“I feel so lucky that I could participate,” says Ms. McGinn. “Stephanie did the exhibit in a way that respected each artist’s personal experience.” Perhaps one of the most important parts of the art therapy process is the emotional freedom provided to each artist during the creation of the pieces. A painting called “Mountains of Peru” by Vickie Sanchez hangs in the exhibit. In it, the sun is rising over mountains and a donkey stands in the pastoral scene. Ms. Sanchez writes about her work, “For a moment I lived in my country while I was painting.”
In 2007, The Cancer Center Art Exhibition will be funded by the Richard M. Wasserman Fund, in his memory, at the Saint Barnabas Medical Center Foundation. If you would like to make a contribution, please call (973) 322-4330.
To learn more about the Art Therapy Program at Saint Barnabas, please call (973) 322-2171. For information about The Cancer Center at Saint Barnabas, please call (973) 322-5200.