Telling tales: Arts in Medicine workshop helps patients and health-care staff cope with cancer

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They were among 13 people who came to The Credit Valley Hospital’s Arts In Medicine workshop– a teen-aged girl whose life was blissfully uncomplicated before her leukemia diagnosis at 15, a radiation oncologist who had rarely given much thought to what attracts him to the work he does and a palliative care physician who found himself wondering about his own final days when the time arrives.

United by the fact that cancer touched their lives, they were patients, health-care providers, family members and supportive care workers who came to explore and to share. Most felt they had no artistic ability but they all had a story to tell and did so by painting a ceramic tile – a tile that would depict their tale, their own experience with cancer.

Imagine waking up in the morning excited but unsure of exactly what the day would bring. Now Imagine going to bed that night having been diagnosed with cancer. In one day, your life has changed forever. For Lauren Donnelly, her symptoms culminated in three words: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At 18, after a 30-month regimen of treatment, she is in full remission and appreciates every day with a new perspective – a perspective that is shaped by the impact this disease has had on her and others.

Lauren’s tile is a testament to the battles of friends and family members who have fought, lost and won. She represents each one with a picture of something that makes them significant to her. Lauren’s own improvised logo resides at the pinnacle of the pyramid – representing her victory over the disease.

Now, imagine you are a physician waking up in the morning knowing exactly what the day will bring – that you must tell a fellow human being they have cancer or that their type of cancer requires the radiation treatment you will describe for them or that all other medical measures have been exhausted and that you will be caring for them in their final days. That is what Dr. Robert Sauls, palliative care physician and Dr. Thomas McGowan, radiation oncologist wake up to face so many mornings in their careers.

For the first time in the eight years since the Tile Tales workshop has been offered at the hospital, health-care professionals had the opportunity to create their tiles in a private workshop. The Arts In Medicine workshops are offered in partnership with The Cross Cancer Institute in Alberta and Dr. Marilyn Hundleby, clinical psychologist and founder of the program. Dr. Hundleby suggested the separate workshop approach would provide physicians and health-care providers with the unique opportunity to explore their perspectives in a way they might not have the freedom to do among patients.

Dr. Sauls shared the insight that “seeing people struggle with illness and the process of receiving medical care, I can’t help but wonder how I will cope when my turn arrives; how I will get through.” He recalls specific moments and places when he gets intense contentment and finds peace. He imagines himself searching for those moments wherever he might find them.

Dr. McGowan felt unsure of how he’d approach this because he didn’t consider himself an artist and had never really questioned why he does what he does. While he is used to gathering his thoughts for speaking, writing and presenting, he was being asked to express his thoughts in a picture using paintbrushes. “I’ve never used art as a medium; I guess that’s why art therapy works – you are exploring a different part of your brain to express your feelings,” he says. “Every time you see a patient, you enter a type of relationship, and as in any relationship, if it doesn’t affect both people, there’s something wrong. People are resilient and strong – you get to see the real person.”

His tile captures the logical and linear evolution of the doctor who came out of medical school with his view of the patient as simply black and white, with all aspects accounted for and compartmentalized in a perfect box. The tile then demonstrates the transformation that takes place as the view of the patient takes on softer edges and colour resulting in a view of the world that reminds Dr. McGowan of why he does what he does – “I’m lucky, in my life, I get to work where I can make a difference in people’s lives.”

The truest testament to the experiences explored and shared adorn the walls of The Carlo Fidani Peel Regional Cancer Centre at The Credit Valley Hospital. The collection of more than 100 tiles is the largest in Canada and continues to be a source of inspiration for those on both sides of the war to conquer cancer.