Handwork and Art Therapy in Cancer Treatment

There has been a lot in the news in recent years about the importance of handwork for early childhood development, and how working with the hands enhances brain function, increases the subjective perception of satisfaction, and possibly helps to keep cognitive function sharp as we age. Many of the claims made about the benefits of such handwork, which includes knitting and woodwork, but extends to gross motor work like mopping or raking or virtually any sort of physical labor, are backed up by neurological research. There may be specific ways that keeping our hands occupied might be helpful for cancer patients — and even their caregivers.

Positive impact on the brain

Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, with the University of Richmond, created the term “behaviorceuticals” to describe how brain chemistry is changed through our activities similarly to how the brain is affected by drugs. She recounts how knitting was a recommended 19th Century treatment for anxiety, and how this is supported by modern neuroscience because repetitive motion encourages the production of specific neurochemicals while a completed project acts as a reward to the knitter, with its own neurological payoff of dopamine.

A welcomed distraction

Coming to terms with anxiety is one of the more difficult aspects of cancer treatment to master. I found early on that one of the most helpful activities I engaged in was simple gardening. Without the strength or stamina to exercise much, I knew that I still needed to get out and move my body — essential for the proper function of the lymphatic system. Not only did tending to my relatively small garden get my body moving and stretching, even if only by small degrees, but it also gave my brain something other than my cancer to focus on.

Through gardening, I felt more in touch with the earth (quite literally), but also more in tune with some of my nutritional needs. There was purpose in this activity and it was more than a mere distraction from the worries of the day. In fact, engaging in any part of the process, from tilling the ground to picking ripe produce, brought my focus and attention to a narrow, simple, and satisfying point.

Engaging the brain in a different way

Beyond the psychological impact, I also noticed physical advantages. When engaging my fine motor skills with an art project, trying my hand at knitting or weaving, or working on felting techniques, it seemed that pain and nausea would subside and be temporarily forgotten. Gross motor projects, like hauling buckets of silicone sealant up onto my roof, sweeping away debris, or sawing dead branches into firewood, had similar benefits. While these heavier projects could not be accomplished on just any day because of the strength or endurance required, they had a more purging effect on my being. In addition to the sweat they induced, there was also a feeling of pride and accomplishment. These activities made me feel “normal” for a while, and that offered its own feeling of “well-being” and inner peace.

The many benefits of art therapy

Art therapy has been a growing discipline over the past century, playing a role in grief counseling, trauma, depression, and stress management. It may be especially useful because it engages the creative mind alongside the physical components of making something new. Various studies over the last twenty years have shown direct benefits to cancer patients including alleviated depression and fatigue, increased positive feelings, and being able to better deal with pain. Research also indicates that cognitive function is increased by art therapy, and perhaps this can help counteract the various effects of chemo brain.

There is good news for those who cannot get out and work the soil, or who lack the dexterity for fine motor work. Many of the same benefits can be achieved through active brain engagement in the learning of new languages, solving puzzles, reading engaging stories and otherwise challenging the brain. No matter what combination of brain and body a person is able to engage, the more we try to utilize our natural tools, the more ways there are for us to benefit from them.1-4

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