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Soothing Cancer With The Arts

Credit Liz Faiella/NHPR
Jessica Gebard works on her writing with Marv Klassen-Landis

A creative arts program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon is helping cancer patients and their families deal with life-changing illness.

On Thursday mornings, Margaret Stephens wheels her harp into the cancer center’s waiting room. She plucks a few notes to warm up her fingers and begins to play.

Between tunes she greets patients by name, asking them how they’re doing and what kind of music they would like to hear. You can tell she loves her job, and her instrument.

"It’s a very pure sound."

But there’s more to it than that.

"It increases the endorphin levels in your body, it certainly reduces body and muscle tension, and it also can help regulate heartbeat and respiration."

Stephens is a therapeutic harpist and part of the creative arts program at DHMC’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center. The program began eleven years ago, and now includes visual art installations, musical performances, and three creative arts specialists. Besides a therapeutic harpist, the hospital employs a visual artist and a creative writer.

The program’s manager, Deb Steele, is a cancer survivor. She says the research is pretty clear—art is helpful to those who are dealing with a major illness.

"Some of the findings show a lessening of fatigue, a reduction in anxiety, and also of fear, an improvement in the whole experience a patient has of their care."

The program’s staff is small, but Steele says it stacks up well against those in big-city hospitals—especially because DHMC offers services like craft and writing groups for free to patients and their families.

Thirty-one-year-old Jessica Gebard of Lebanon is a patient with brain cancer. She has long, curly blond hair and a shy but infectious smile. She says she felt isolated and lonely before she found the creative writing group.

"I was really nervous at first because I’m such a quiet person, but the writing has allowed me to open up a lot more and just come up with these like amazing ideas that I can live for and live by."

Group writing sessions are led by Marv Klassen-Landis, who also visits inpatients for one-on-one sessions.

Klassen-Landis: So you want to try an experiment with metaphors?

Gebard: OK.

Klassen-Landis: I’m going to give you a category. Uh, Let’s see. A musical instrument.

Klassen-Landis: "Myself, I can often feel like I’m being acted upon by life. If you start writing about it, you become the creator and the shaper. It’s very empowering for people."

Gebard: “I am a cello. I bring a mellow tone to the world around me. I make everyone feel peace within their soul. I love being part of the bigger group. I stand tall.” I think the last statement, “I stand tall,” is a really powerful one. I didn’t expect to write that one down.

Sometimes these one-on-one sessions happen spontaneously. Creative artists go door to door, asking if patients would like to write a poem, create a painting, or hear a piece of music. Other times nurses refer patients to an artist, or family members request a visit… sometimes when their loved one has passed away. Stephens says that the harp can create what she calls a “cradle of sound” as families deal with grief.

"You know, sometimes people are just in such a deep emotional state they don’t want to talk, but that sound just cradles them and holds them there for the space that they need to have to heal, or to be quiet, or process their experiences."

Visits can last from a few minutes to more than an hour. But with only three creative arts specialists on staff, not everyone gets this kind of individual attention. Steele says the program would like to bring in more artists and give them more hours, but it’s a funding issue.

"That’s our goal really, is to find enough funding so that any patient that wants a visit from the artist or the harpist or the writer can have that time whether they’re getting chemotherapy for six hours, or they’re actually an inpatient for six days."

As for those patients who do participate, some, like Jessica Gebard, think it’s worked wonders.

"I got word the other day that my cancer has stopped growing. I think it’s working for me in so many ways."

The relationship between art and healing is still being explored. And not every patient will have the same experience. But when patients and their families are facing a major illness, the arts can help them cope.

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