Thursday 19th September 2013
Dr Lizzie Burns is a familiar face at the Macmillan Cancer Centre in University College Hospital (UCH) in London. She encourages people undergoing cancer treatment to express themselves through art.
Thanks to funding from London-based charity Cancer Care, Lizzie has been part of the Macmillan Support and Information Service and the complementary therapy team at UCH for over four years.
Lizzie’s background is in cancer research, having completed a doctorate and research fellowship at the University of Oxford.
She has since worked for more than 12 years as a self-taught professional artist.
‘My role at UCH combines my expertise in both science and art,’ says Lizzie. ‘My approach is different from art therapy, which emerged from psychotherapy. I focus instead on encouraging people to discover their creativity. Although this isn’t a treatment for cancer, I have seen benefits among people with cancer who report feeling happy, relaxed, motivated and forgetting about their condition. An hour of art making can significantly reduce symptoms associated with chemotherapy, including anxiety, pain and fatigue, and being creative can help lift mood.’
Lizzie believes that engaging in creative work can help someone focus on what gives life meaning and alleviates the boredom experienced by people with cancer during long stays in hospital - especially those whose families live a considerable distance away or who receive few visitors.
‘Patients can be alone for long periods with very little to do and often want to have fun, rather than focusing on their treatment,’ she says. ‘For many of them, this may be the first time they have done something creative since childhood.’
There are no restrictions on the media people can use to express themselves - some paint, others doodle and one even proved to be an expert in origami. Reaching out to adults is one of Lizzie’s top priorities. She feels there can be less support available for adults, as children and teenagers often receive support from their parents, charities and through school.
This decision to focus her attention on adults recently proved rewarding, with a 68-year-old person with cancer called Leonard, who spent five months in the hospital. Feeling bored, Leonard asked for a set of felt-tip pens and began to draw on a daily basis - often recreating memories from childhood. ‘His pictures were very powerful and he seemed tranquil while drawing,’ she says.
Although Leonard has now passed away, while he was still alive, Lizzie and UCLH Arts Curator Guy Noble arranged an exhibition of Leonard’s work in the Cancer Centre. It also featured work from others receiving treatment at the hospital.
Lizzie runs a creative group that is often popular with those nearing the end of their treatment. She has also organised workshops aimed at nurses and other professionals who interact with people with cancer every day.
Looking ahead, Lizzie would like to continue her work with adults who may be struggling for something to keep them occupied during treatment. She would also like to produce ‘anti-boredom packs’ to provide to people affected by cancer during hospitalisation. These would include ideas alongside paper, pens and other artistic tools.
Email Dr Lizzie Burns, Artist, Macmillan Support and Information Service, UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre.
Nainis N et al. Relieving symptoms in cancer: innovative use of art therapy. J Pain Symptom Management. 2006. 31:162-16
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