SCI spotlight: Art therapy at the Swedish Cancer Institute

August 25, 2018

At the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI), art therapy is a free service and is open to oncology patients and family members. We see people who have just been diagnosed, are in active cancer treatment or are in survivorship. Read below to find out what you can expect, and how to make an appointment.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a healing modality, led by a professional art therapist. It is intended to bring together physical, emotional and spiritual care by offering creative ways for patients to respond to their cancer experience. During art therapy sessions, patients engage in a combination of counseling and using art materials

What are some of the outcomes from the patient after art therapy?

Patients have a variety of responses of working with our art therapists. Some patients have reported feeling more relaxed, less stressed and less anxious. Other patients have expressed that that after art therapy they generally feel better, more content, have a sense of relief and even have a reduction of pain.

Patients are often surprised by either the art that comes out of them, or how they feel after creating art. For many patients, art therapy becomes something for them to look forward to when they come to SCI for treatment. 

How does art therapy work?

One of the ways art therapy works is by helping the brain “shift gears” from verbal to non-verbal ways of processing. Stressful experiences are often stored in non-verbal areas of the brain. When we use creative expression during counseling, it can help us access those non-verbal areas, and process emotions at a deeper level. This means that the art in art therapy is more about the act of making art and communicating through art, rather than the goal of making something pretty or realistic.

Another reason why art therapy works is that human beings are hardwired to share stories through language and images. We see this in cultures across the world and throughout history. As humans, most of us have a need to be witnessed and act as a witness for others. Art therapy helps people be “seen” and allows them to express difficult emotions about cancer that they might not feel allowed to share with others in their lives. Art therapy also offers patients and family members new ways of coping with illness and difficult emotions and helps build new skills and resiliency.

What can patients expect from an art therapy visit? 

It’s important to know that art therapy is therapy. It is a time for you to use art to explore the variety of issues that may come up with illness. 

Art therapy is offered in two ways at SCI:

  1. Individual art therapy: Patients or family members can make appointments for individual art therapy. Individuals come to the art therapist’s office for about 50 minutes. During these individual sessions, patients will engage in a combination of counseling and using art materials. Art therapy is not an art class. Your art will never be judged, graded or critiqued. All materials are provided. No art experience is required. 
  2. Art and Wellness Group: Patients and family members can come to any of our weekly Art and Wellness groups. These groups are 1½-2 hours and patients and family members are welcome to drop-in; no appointment is required. We work on a variety of art projects, which change each month. The Art and Wellness Group is not an art class. Your art will never be judged, graded or critiqued. All materials are provided, along with encouragement. No art experience is required. 

What if I am not an artist?

You do not have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. Most adults have not engaged in making art since elementary school, and a lot of anxiety can come up around the idea of it. However, since the art in art therapy is mostly about expression and communication, it does not matter what it looks like. We welcome people who can’t “draw a straight line” and can only draw “stick figures.” We see a lot of stick figures in our office and the people making those stick figures are getting just as much out of art therapy as the trained artists. 

Who are our art therapists?

First Hill – Zandi Salstrom holds a Bachelor’s of science degree in health psychology from Bastyr University and a dual Master’s degree in counseling and art therapy from Antioch University. She is a licensed mental health counselor and a board certified art therapist. Prior to Swedish, Zandi has worked as an art therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center, Kline Galland Home, Cancer Lifeline and Cancer Pathways. She has also taught in the Masters of Art Therapy Program at Antioch University. She was a cofounder of the Northwest Creative and Expressive Arts Institute, and is the founder of Seattle Expressive Art Therapy, PLLC. She has a family history of cancer and creativity, and feels honored to be able to bring her creativity and counseling skills to help patients and family members at the Swedish Cancer Institute.

Edmonds – Bonnie Walchuk holds a dual Master’s degree in art therapy and marriage and family therapy from Antioch University in Seattle. In addition to her work at Swedish, Bonnie is as an art therapist at the University of Washington Medical Center, where she runs inpatient art therapy groups for the oncology and physical rehabilitation units. In addition to her training in medical art therapy, Bonnie served couples, families and individuals as a clinical intern at Antioch Community Counseling and Psychology Clinic. Outside of her profession, Bonnie enjoys spending time with family and friends, international travel, outdoor adventures, art, music, the mountains and the water. 

Scheduling individual appointments 

Patients and family members are welcome to schedule appointments by telephone: 
  • First Hill: Contact our art therapist, Zandi Salstrom: 206-215-6178 
  • Edmonds: Contact our art therapist, Bonnie Walchuk: 425-640-4984 

Art and Wellness groups 

  • First Hill – Tuesdays (ongoing), 10 a.m. to noon. This free drop-in group is open to oncology patients, family members and caregivers. No art experience required. All materials are provided. Located in the 5th Floor Healing Forum in the Arnold Pavilion. 
  • Edmonds – Fridays (ongoing) 10-11:30 a.m. This free drop-in group is open to oncology patients, family members and caregivers. No art experience is required. All materials are provided. Located in the Medical Oncology Lobby. 

The SCI Art therapy program is generously funded by philanthropy, and we have proudly expanded our art therapy program to the Swedish Edmonds campus. To donate or learn more about how you can support our art therapy program, contact the Foundation by email or call 206-386-2738.

This article is from the Fall 2018 issue of Life to the Fullest, the newsletter from the Swedish Cancer Institute dedicated to those with cancer, cancer survivors, and their family members and caregivers.