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MD Anderson art program helps children with cancer cope

September 17, 2018

Diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, nine-year-old Lara Amer was angry and wouldn’t leave her hospital room for days. Then, someone brought her art supplies, and her attitude changed as she began to create art.

During this Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Lara is cancer-free. She said when she was sick, creating art helped her to forget about her pain and get better.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital has been using art for years to help its young patients, but it launched the Postal Art Exchange Project in April. The project allows children with cancer the opportunity to create and exchange their artwork with artists from across the nation and world.

“MD Anderson pediatric patients begin a work of art on the back of a postcard, using watercolor, printmaking or mixed media materials. On the reverse side of the postcard, they include their name, age, hometown and a description of their artwork and any suggestions for their collaborator,” said Arts in Medicine Manager Zachary Gresham.

He said the hospital mails the postcards to artists, who then add their art and mail them back to the patients. Additionally, the process repeats but in reverse, where the artists start with a blank card and have the patients complete it, Gresham said.

Gresham said the Postal Art Exchange Project began as a summer project with the idea that most of the patients spend a lot of time at the hospital, unable to really travel for summer vacations.

Studies have shown that creating art can benefit patients, and Gresham said the process often brings improvements in mood, outlook and sometimes even physical health.

“Patients can be entrenched in a creative process and lose track of time or momentarily forget about an ailment or frustration,” he said. “That’s why the Arts in Medicine Program is so valuable to patients and families.”

Lara and her family first learned she had the highly aggressive type of cancer in early January after she grew very ill over the Christmas holidays.

Although Lara’s mother Mai Ramadan had not yet told her that she had cancer, Lara knew that when she arrived at MD Anderson, it was a cancer hospital because her grandmother had been treated there. Ramadan said when Lara finally heard the full scope of her diagnosis, she was very upset.

“She was angry. She wasn’t very happy. She was in a lot of pain. She hadn’t slept for almost two days because we keep having — that’s hospital life — doctors and nurses checking on her every hour, asking questions,” Ramadan said. “She was yelling at the doctors. She kicked one of the nurses.”

The hospital offered activities for the patients, but Ramadan said Lara was not interested until a child life specialist came to Lara’s room toting art supplies. Lara started making art. Soon, she was taking walks around her floor, meeting peers and even began checking the calendar daily to see what people would be visiting and what types of activities she could get into.

“I like art because it took my mind off of the pain, and it was just really fun. I got to draw, and I didn’t even think I was that good at art until I actually got to do it for a long time,” Lara said.

Lara has worked on several pieces, and some of her art is slated to be featured in the Children’s Art Project, which sells items like cards, gifts and apparel to support programs for patients like her.

After completing six cycles of chemotherapy, Lara got to ring a ceremonial bell May 29 to celebrate her last treatment. For now, she goes back for follow-ups each month. She said she is stronger for having walked the difficult journey.

Looking back, the sweet, young girl whose hair is growing back after being shaved off for chemo said, “There’s always hope, even when it feels like there’s none.”

The artwork of Lara and other pediatric cancer patients will be on display through November outside Third Coast, which is a restaurant in the Texas Medical Center located on the sixth floor at 6550 Bertner Ave.

Gresham said the Postal Art Exchange Project has been so successful and popular that the hospital has decided to make it a year-round program.

“We hope the postcards can be a momentary escape from the hospital via our imaginations for the patients and families,” Gresham said. “Even though they might be stuck in the hospital for a while or they’re unable to do the usual activities due to treatment, the kids can imagine what adventure their artwork might go on and whose hands it will be in next.”

tracy.maness@hcnonline.com

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