Children, Cancer, and Art

Art therapy helps pediatric oncology patients — and their parents.

“Your heart sinks, your mind races, and your knees turn to jelly.” These were Teresa Miller’s reactions upon being told that her four-year-old son had to go directly to the hospital because the diagnosis was a rare blood disorder.

Years ahead would be filled with blood draws, hospital stays, medications, side effects and changes to the ways of life for all members of the family. But another surprise awaited upon entering the hospital’s pediatric oncology/hematology unit for the first time. The reception room was prepared by Tracy’s Kids, an art therapy program. Crayons, paint, pottery and masterpieces created by previous young patients offered the perfect escape from the anxieties born from facing the uncertainties of a dreadful disease.

The Children’s Hospital at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus has provided such a program for youthful patients and their families for over two years. With a grant from Tracy’s Kids, Pediatric Specialists of Virginia added Art Therapist Catherine Rubin to their team. Now at seven sites, stretching from New York City to San Antonio, Texas, over 20,000 patients and their families are served annually.

While a bright and colorful reception area might set the scene, the work of an art therapist is conducted one-on-one at a child’s bedside, according to Rubin. Changing over the course of tests and treatment, patient fears and uncertainties first must be identified at each specific “moment in time.” Once uncovered, the task is to objectify them through an art medium attractive to the child.

A “WorryBox” is a perfect example.

“The art therapists at Tracy’s Kids become part of your family, your new normal,” Miller said. “We consider them just as important as my son’s team of doctors. My son and his brother have always been excited to go to the hospital thanks to this unique benefit — ready and waiting for patients and their families. Tracy’s Kids has provided an outlet for anger, worry and frustration. I treasure the ‘WorryBox’ that Joseph and the therapist made to sit by his bed and trap his worries before they came to him. Joseph’s painting ‘A Portrait of Mom’ reminds me of the time he was so angry at me for yet another needle — the therapist worked with him, validating his feelings and moving forward. The true beauty of Tracy’s Kids is the joy and support found in creative hearts and souls of the patients, families, and therapists in the pediatric oncology/hematology clinic.”

The entire process is wrapped in a philosophy expressed by Tracy Councill, founder of Tracy’s Kids”: Use art “to let kids just be kids” notwithstanding the serious discomforts of medical treatment. Nor are the patient’s siblings overlooked.

The urgent focus on treatment for the ill child can lead a brother or sister to feel “left out” or even forgotten, and sometimes jealous over losing the attention of parents. An art therapist searches for ways to involve the other child so he or she gains an understanding of what is happening and why it does not mean he or she is less loved and appreciated within the family. All these efforts also reduce the emotional stress upon parents.

The Knights of Columbus in Arlington became aware of the art therapy program late last Spring, and the reaction was: “What can we do?” In short order a fundraiser was scheduled for the grounds of the Columbus Club of Arlington, Inc. on Little Falls Road. The theme was racing and the event coincided with this year’s Kentucky Derby. Fun and games for children, food and beverages for all, a live auction, ladies hat contest and the highlight of adults competing on oversized tricycles filled the afternoon, which concluded with an outdoor viewing of the big race at Churchill Downs.

The event was declared a success with more than $10,000 realized for Tracy’s Kids. Event chairman Bryant Porter announced that the hurry-up name “Derby Day Party” was changed to “First Annual Derby Day Party” and next year’s gathering would be much bigger and much better.

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