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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Worry dolls, posters, masks and mandalas help kids cope with cancer

Girls show off their masks.
Children in the first Art Therapy for Children class created clay masks showing how it feels to have a family member with cancer.

Jannika Meier was thrilled to learn about the free children's art course offered through UC Davis Cancer Center. However, she admits to being a little reticent to enroll her kids after learning that "therapy" was a key part of the class.

"I was nervous at first about bringing back the year I was in treatment, since we've worked hard to put it behind us," she said. "But the course was a lot different than I thought it would be. Elaine made it all so much fun. She made the process of talking about cancer very normal and acceptable."

Elaine Bowers, the registered art therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist who teaches Art Therapy for Children, specializes in helping kids convey feelings through art. There were eight children in the inaugural class, which began April 9 and culminated July 9 with a special exhibit for family and friends. Each participant had a parent who is a cancer survivor.

"Art is a process children are familiar with, which makes it perfect to use for therapy," said Bowers. "Children haven't developed the coping skills to help them through a family crisis. They tend to fill in the gaps with their own limited life experiences and knowledge. They often keep their feelings a secret and think they are the only one going through the crisis. That's why the class is so important. They meet other children who are going through the same thing, and it is a safe place to talk about the illness."

"The young artist told me with great confidence that she didn't need to tell the worry doll her worries anymore, because the doll just knows them now."
— Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, principal investigator

Meier was diagnosed with cancer two years ago when her three children were all under five years old. Until she enrolled her eldest two in Bowers' class, she had focused on healing herself and overcoming the chemotherapy and surgery that dominated her life for a year. But the class gave her kids a chance to talk about lingering anger, fear, confusion, sadness and worry — all very typical feelings for children with a parent who has been seriously ill.

"And she made it OK for them to do so," Meier said.

Bowers developed the series of art therapy lessons to carefully help children decipher the experience of cancer. A worry doll gives them a special friend to share emotional pain. A drawing of the cancer monster and the weapon that destroys it gives them a sense of control over the illness. A self-portrait "X-ray" shows what their emotions look like and helps externalize feelings. A box of mementos representing happy times brings enjoyment during down times. A mandala of words and photos reflects individual likes and interests and affirms a sense of being special.

"It's eye opening for the children — and their parents — to actually see what they know and think about cancer," said Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, director of the Outreach Research and Education Program for UC Davis Cancer Center and principal investigator on the grant that funds the program. "We started the course because we knew there was a need to support children in our community who are dealing with cancer. We're thrilled that this first group got so much out of it."

Von Friederichs-Fitzwater thinks all of the student pieces are true works of art. However, she is most touched by one worry doll.

"The young artist told me with great confidence that she didn't need to tell the worry doll her worries anymore, because the doll just knows them now," von Friederichs-Fitzwater said.

Offered as part of the Healing and Performing Arts for Children Program, the next art therapy class begins in September and will meet once a week over 10 weeks. A music therapy class will also begin in September. All children who have a parent or close loved one with cancer — or who have cancer themselves — are welcome to enroll. Funding from Children's Miracle Network and UC Davis Cancer Center allow the courses to be offered free-of-charge. To add your name to the mailing list for more information, call (916) 734-0823 or e-mail patricia.robinson@ucdmc.ucdavis.edu.