Sunday 19 November 2017

Painting a brighter picture for those on cancer journeys

With art therapy proven to be beneficial, one Dublin project is injecting colour into the previously soulless environment used daily by those who are undergoing cancer treatment, writes Ailin Quinlan

Malahide-based painter and sculptor Sheelagh McShane. Picture: Ronan Lang
Malahide-based painter and sculptor Sheelagh McShane. Picture: Ronan Lang
Malahide-based painter and sculptor Sheelagh McShane came up with the idea of creating an Art Walk in the long, previously bland, link corridor between Beaumont Hospital and St Luke’s Radiation Oncology Centre, Dublin, when undergoing treatment for cancer in 2011. Picture: Ronan Lang

Ailin Quinlan

IT CAN take up to 10 minutes to trek the long corridor linking Beaumont Hospital to St Luke's Radiation Oncology Centre – and until recently, it was a bleak, colourless slog for patients and medical staff alike.

But thanks to the brainwave of artist and cancer patient Sheelagh McShane, that long trudge has been transformed into a colourful, eye-catching exhibition featuring paintings, sculptures and mixed media by more than 20 artists.

Beaumont Hospital's new Art Walk, which was officially launched by Minister Jimmy Deenihan and the renowned artist Guggi on May 6, has transformed what was a cheerless link corridor into a walk of discovery for everyone who takes it.

McShane started to use the link corridor between the two centres in 2011 to access treatment for breast cancer – and, as time passed, the Malahide-based painter and sculptor became increasingly conscious of how long and boring the journey was.

It was, she recalls, "an exceptionally long corridor, and when I walked up and down, it was so blank and bare!

"I was using it a lot. It called out to me. It was crying out for artwork! It's really a beautiful space."

Louise Church, another breast cancer patient and a member of the board of the fundraising group, Friends of St Luke's Cancer Care, takes up the story.

As a board member part of her brief was to come up with ideas to make a patient's visit to the centre more pleasing – and, although she and other members of the board had discussed brightening up the dreary link corridor with colourful murals or, perhaps, a display of inspirational messages, Sheelagh's idea caught everyone's imagination.

"I didn't fully appreciate how therapeutic art could be," says the 56-year-old IT consultant from Dundrum.

"We were saying it would be nice to have murals on the wall so that you could look at lovely things as you walked along the corridor.

"However, Sheelagh came to us independently and suggested running a permanent exhibition that would show different art at different times."

More than 20 contemporary artists, including McShane, have now been chosen to display their work at the Art Walk exhibition and, as with any exhibition, the artwork is available for sale to interested members of the public.

Eighty per cent of the price goes to the artist and the remaining 20pc is divided between the Beaumont Hospital Foundation and the Friends of St Lukes Cancer Care.

The idea, says McShane, is that the corridor will be a living exhibition space.

"We already have a list of artists who would like to exhibit in the space," she said, adding that a broad range of work – paintings, sculptures and mixed media – will be on display to ensure a wide variety.

"It's for the patients but will also be of huge benefit to artists; they need to exhibit their work," she explains.

And where better to display your creative work, she points out, than in a long and busy corridor continuously traversed by large numbers of people every day of the week.

"Sometimes exhibitions in galleries don't reach many people, but in a hospital there are constantly so many people passing through and looking at the work. It's a very exciting project."

Art has always had the ability to bring people to a different place, she says.

"It takes you away from the mundane which, if you are recuperating, is an important thing because it distracts you and makes you think of other things."

However, the Art Walk is not just beautiful, says Dr Clare Faul, Consultant Radiation Oncologist and Clinical Lead for the Beaumont Centre, who began to treat McShane in 2011 – it also has significant health benefits for patients.

"Although the centre is attached to the main hospital in Beaumont, and linked to it by a long corridor, it takes six or seven minutes to travel it.

"It is quite long and quite functional, but quite bleak.

"However, it is also bright, with big windows on one side," she says, recalling how Sheelagh spotted its potential as "a perfect location for artwork" and suggested using it as an exhibition space. "The benefits of art are recognised internationally – it seems to help patients improve the quality of their life and soothe anxiety," she says.

Research shows that art and art therapy can have beneficial effects for cancer patients.

For, example, in 2006, a study published in the US Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that art therapy could reduce a broad range of symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients.

Researchers discovered that cancer patients reported significant reductions in eight of nine symptoms after spending an hour working on art projects of their choice.

Just last year, a major review of a number of studies carried out over 23 years found that people with cancer who engage in creative arts therapy experienced less depression and anxiety than those who don't.

An article in JAMA Internal Medicine showed how an analysis of nearly 30 different pieces of research involving almost 1,600 people – some who were randomly assigned to participate in creative arts therapy such as music, art and dance – found that those who engaged in such therapy reported less depression, anxiety and pain than those who didn't.

Looking at art or engaging in art therapy can improve quality of life and the psychological well-being of a patient – and it also improves pain control, Dr Faul says.

She explains that art seems to have the ability to distract people from concentrating on their own situation by taking their mind away from their symptoms or diagnoses.

This helps to soothe their anxiety, she says, adding that already, the feedback from patients using the Art Walk has been "really incredible."

"A lot of patients would use the corridor for their first appointment and the feedback is that the paintings soothe them and make them less anxious."

It's not just the patients who enjoy the benefit of the artwork.

"We've also had very good feedback from staff members who feel the beautiful artwork improves their own anxiety levels," observes Dr Faul.

Louise Church, who has endured chemotherapy, mastectomy, re-construction and radiotherapy, is one of those who has experienced the benefits.

"I didn't fully appreciate how therapeutic art could be," she says, adding that the Friends of St Luke's Cancer Care would like to see a similar project put in place on the long link corridor linking St James's Hospital with its radiation oncology centre.

"As a cancer patient, I can see that it is so important that hospitals realise that if you're going through something like radiotherapy, it's so boring. It's the same thing at the same time and you're looking at plain grey or white walls.

"You need something to take your mind off it. The corridor is amazing now. You're walking down it, enjoying this running, changing art exhibition.

"When you're going for treatment five days a week, you don't want to look at ugly things.

"The way the art lifts the soul is very hard to describe, but it lifts the soul to be around beautiful things. I cannot believe how it lifts you!

"I didn't understand how important and significant art could be until I was making this journey down the corridor myself!"

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