Art therapy helps cancer patients cope

August 13, 2014

Being diagnosed with cancer can make you feel like your life’s been turned upside down.

You want the most advanced treatment you can get— and the caring support you need to help you or your loved one cope and thrive through your journey. At UC Irvine Health, we provide the best of both worlds.

“Even though treatments have greatly improved, there’s still tremendous fear and anxiety around cancer,” says oncologist Dr. Leonard Sender. “That’s why our support programs are so important.”

“Art for the Soul” is a prime example of these programs. Taught by Val Engstrom, a three-time cancer survivor, and his wife Rolanda, Art for the Soul enables cancer patients to express their fears and emotions through art.

The Engstroms started the program in 2007 at the urging of social worker Jennifer Higgins, who met the couple at a cancer support group. “When I learned they were both artists, it just seemed like this could be a great outlet for our patients,” says Higgins.

No art experience is needed. “If all you can draw is a stick figure, that’s great,” says Engstrom. “But most people are surprised to learn they can do much more—and they really enjoy it.”

Creating a painting or sketch can be more than just a temporary distraction for patients undergoing cancer treatment. “It’s a chance to create something durable and lasting,” says Engstrom. “It adds a permanence to your life at a time when that’s in question.”

Another support service, the Cancer Buddy program, offers patients a different, but equally important outlet, pairing newly diagnosed cancer patients with a volunteer who’s been successfully treated for the same type of cancer. “Being able to talk to someone who’s gone through the same thing as you really helps,” says Bob Griffith, program coordinator.

“Some patients don’t want to reveal their fear or anxiety to their families—they want to be strong,” says Higgins. “A buddy gives them someone to open up to.”

For Griffith, who was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in 2002, the buddy program is a way to give back. “I had incredible support from those around me—that’s why I’m still here,” he says. “I want others to have that, too— and know they’re not alone.”

For more information and a list of cancer support groups, visit

View some of the paintings by Art for the Soul class members in the gallery below.

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