Using art as therapy - A carers story

When cancer suddenly enters, life is turned upside down. Uncertainty, instability and anxiety are common emotions for patients, carers and families. Jo Hogan, carer for partner Lori Crupi who was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2016, shares an honest and raw insight into living with cancer, and how art therapy has provided a place of solace amongst their journey of emotional chaos.

“Lori and I had gone to the doctor for our end-of-year annual health check. Lori was advised that her haemoglobin was dangerously low and had to go to hospital for an immediate transfusion,” says Jo. “She did not even go home to get things to take to the hospital. One minute we finished up our monthly Board Meeting (Jo and Lori run a business together) and the next minute life and business had been turned on its head.”

“Lori has blood cancer. There is no cure for her at this stage, just management. This includes weekly monitoring of her blood and a weekly blood transfusion which can take up to six hours. We are here at the ONJ Centre a minimum of two days each week.”

Before cancer, Jo and Lori lived a busy and active life filled with family, their business, travel, supporting their beloved football club, volunteering in their local community, helping with fundraisers, donating to charities.

“Together we have always been a resilient team,” says Jo. “We were used to dealing with uncertainly in our lives, but blood cancer, for us at this moment, is here to stay.”

“Initially, we were reluctant to take up the ‘non-medical’ support offered at the ONJ Centre for fear of being engulfed by the ‘cancer world’,” says Jo. “But unfortunately it is not something one can avoid as the journey progresses.”

“Our life and world are much smaller than they once were,” says Jo. “However we are grateful for all the support we have received and find happiness in the little things that life has to offer. We are very content these days. The Wellness Centre and Art Therapy Open Studio, out of everything at the hospital, are major contributors to this.”

When asked to talk about art therapy, Jo’s response is genuine and heartfelt : “Where do I begin and how does one express the incredible value of these wonderful sessions?”

Senior Art Therapist Fiona Scottney explains how participating in creative pursuits, such as art, can help with relaxation, relief from stress, a sense of accomplishment, connection to tradition, increased happiness, reduced anxiety, enhanced confidence, as well as cognitive abilities including improved memory, concentration and ability to think through problems.

“Painting and drawing focus on repetitive actions and a skill level that can be improved upon. Art Therapy at the ONJ Centre provides the opportunity to have time, space, art materials, safety and community in an environment where ideas, imagination and creativity can flourish with the support of an art therapist.”

“The thing I have enjoyed the most is looking at my blank canvas and going with the flow in the moment,” says Jo. “The greatest lesson is to face the fear and do it anyway, knowing that I am not judged and free to express myself and see and feel things that sometimes I may not have been present to in the cancer journey.”

“Some days, I may have had an anxious morning due to Lori’s results or perhaps to how she may be feeling. At times like this, I may take an hour just to get my paints together, stare out the window, simply watch others in the Open Studio paint and when appropriate, have a chat. This helps me feel connected, understood and re-inspired.”

“Our art therapist has a wonderful way of understanding our feelings and gently guiding us in the right direction. Sometimes it is just letting us be and providing space for us to be with our thoughts and feelings until I find my way to a canvas to paint.”

The Art Therapy Open Studio group meets every Wednesday from 2-4pm in the Wellness Centre and is open to patients as well as their carers.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity as a carer to be able to participate in the Open Studio with Lori,” says Jo. “Sometimes we just sit next to each other and paint with no words, or we encourage each other. It opens up conversations about our inner feelings that we may not have previously realised were there. Sometimes we just let the art and the process do the talking.”

“I have learnt about detachment, being in the moment, how I interpret the world around me, how to deal with the chaos of the journey – all at my own pace and choice. We are in well-qualified hands of art therapists who have the skills and ability to not only help us open ourselves to the art, but discover insights to help us find meaning and purpose from our feelings.”

Art therapy has helped Lori and Jo have important input into Lori’s treatment and management plan.

“We use the strength and peace we gain from art therapy to speak with clarity and courage to our doctors, to ask questions and to help Lori feel she has some sense of control over her cancer (as much as one can),” says Jo. “It’s about the whole person, not just the cancer. I have learned with cancer, it’s not the cancer itself that causes challenges for us, it is the side effects of the treatment (treatment for which we are most grateful). This requires stamina and getting the best performance out of ourselves.”

Lori initially benefited from immunotherapy for her blood cancer, however it gradually lost its effectiveness and current treatment for Lori is a weekly blood transfusion.

“Whilst waiting for another breakthrough or a new clinical trial, we must keep clear-headed, strong, resilient and well. Well enough so that when a new treatment is available, Lori is well enough in body and mind to deal with it and the side effects. This is why art therapy is a key in our approach to managing her cancer and the side effects of her treatment.”

“Art therapy is the here and now of our well-being and provides some stability in the uncertainty.” – Jo Hogan, carer

Wellness programs like art therapy give hope and emotional strength to our patients, their families and carers, helping them negotiate one of the most stressful times of their lives. These programs would not exist without support from our donors, including the ONJ Centre community and the Dry July foundation.

Jo is very grateful for the existence of art therapy, and encourages ongoing support from the community.

“It may not be a program where you can see your name on a plaque,” says Jo. “Your walking billboard is that Lori is alive and well, she herself is the physical asset. Art therapy has enabled us to live in the present, deal with uncertainty and have hope and strength for the future.”

“By contributing to the art therapy program at the ONJ Centre, you provide the survival toolbox for us to stay strong, well, happy, connected and to see ourselves as more than cancer. Our life is not on hold while we wait for new research breakthroughs.” – Jo Hogan, carer


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