Taking part in these creative arts "is an opportunity for these patients to complement the healing process above and beyond the physical," said Timothy Puetz, presidential management fellow at the U.S. National Institutes of Health's Office of the Director.
With his colleagues, Puetz reviewed 27 published studies that included more than 1,500 patients. The review was published online May 13 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
The researchers looked at the effects of the creative arts on common problems linked with cancer, including anxiety, depression, pain, fatigue and quality of life, and found that the arts did indeed have an effect on all issues except fatigue.
"These were moderate effects," Puetz said, but they were substantial enough for patients to notice them.
Research on the effects of creative arts on cancer-related health problems has gotten much less attention than other therapies such as vitamin and other supplements and mind-body therapies, Puetz said.
There is not enough research, Puetz said, to recommend one form of art over another.
In the studies, patients ranged in age from 48 to 56, on average. They had been diagnosed with cancers of the breast, blood, lung and prostate, among other organs. They had gotten a variety of treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy or combinations thereof.
The studies compared patients who engaged in the arts with patients who received no treatment, those on waiting lists, those who received usual care or those who received a placebo. During follow-up, the effects of the arts diminished, the researchers found.
One possible take-home point of the study seems to be that the arts are "going to help you in the short term but not the long term," said Matthew Loscalzo, administrative director of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Duarte, Calif.
Loscalzo reviewed the study findings and speculated as to why the arts may help, at least during the short term.
It might be that the relationships that form during the creative arts participation help the patients focus on something else, he said. Or the music, art or writing themselves could be a simple distraction that moves the mind away from anxiety, depression and pain. "I think it is both," Loscalzo said.
One limitation of the study, Loscalzo said, is that the groups participating in the arts were compared to a waiting list, usual care or no treatment. It could have been valuable, he said, to compare the arts to other interventions, such as reading a book or meditating.
Still, Loscalzo said, it's a step forward that a journal as prestigious as JAMA published the findings.
Cancer patients seeking to find creative arts classes can ask their doctor or the resource center at their cancer center. They are still not commonplace, Loscalzo said. "[At City of Hope], we screen and ask patients what would be helpful," he said. They offer yoga, cooking classes, music, art and other opportunities.
If a patient's doctor or cancer center does not know of any such opportunities, Puetz suggested seeking out an art, music or dance class in the community. Senior centers and community colleges might offer the classes. Even if the classes are not specifically designed for patients with cancer, "there are no negative consequences," Puetz said.
To learn more about the emotional effects of cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.