The Breast of Everything

Erin Simonetti on Coping with breast cancer through art therapy

July 15, 2021 Comprehensive Breast Care Season 1 Episode 19
The Breast of Everything
Erin Simonetti on Coping with breast cancer through art therapy
Show Notes Transcript

Erin Simonetti was 10 years old when her mother died of cancer at the age of 38. Erin turned to art as an outlet for dealing with her grief. She found comfort and relief by expressing her thoughts and feelings on paper instead of through words. It was not until she went to college that she realized art was a tool many cancer centers incorporated in their treatment programs. Erin’s life and career path made a drastic turn. She had experienced the healing power of art first-hand, and wanted to help others in their journey, too. Today, she serves as a registered art therapist at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Flint, Michigan, where she facilitates week art therapy programs for patients and families touched by cancer. 

The goal of art therapy is to create a safe space in a non-judgmental environment where cancer patients can externalize their emotions on paper. Patients can release their stress, frustrations and anxiety when words just aren’t enough. They use art as a visual form of self-reflection to externalize their emotions that are locked inside so patients gradually can begin to heal emotionally and mentally. Each patient has his or her own unique perceptions about their cancer and they capture these through their art.

Unknown Speaker  0:44  
Ashley, thank you so much for having me as well, I really appreciate being here. So ironically, this all began with my own personal story. When I was a child, my mother actually had battled breast cancer. And unfortunately, she had passed away when she was 38. And I was 10 years old. And as you can imagine, I was very close with her. And so this was a tremendous loss for me. And I really actually used AR as my own form of expression to process that grief that I had gone through. And this is long before I ever even knew what art therapy was, I just wanted to be creative. And I needed to externalize. And that was, at the time, kind of the only way I knew how, and so for many years, I kind of used it as my own tool. And it wasn't until actually I was an undergraduate school that I had even heard about art therapy. And so when I had found out that it's, you know, a combination of psychology and art, I was really drawn to it. And so really, that's kind of where that passion began. And then, in terms of Karmanos, you know, I really wanted to be able to give the opportunity to be able to help other people in the way that art had helped me in my own journey. But also be able to provide an outlet for those that are touched by cancer, not only for the survivors, but also for their family members. So their children, their spouses, their friends and family.

Unknown Speaker  2:44  
So what you can expect is, really, my whole goal is to create a safe space where people can process in a non judgmental environment. So not only do I provide individual art therapy sessions, but also group art therapy sessions. And so typically, in a group art therapy session, what you can expect is, there's many different people in the group that come from different cancer experiences, some have been diagnosed, and again, some are touched, because they're a family member, or friend. And so really, I come to the table with a thought or an idea or a theme. And we use different art materials to help process what you know that theme might be entailed, or how they perceive it. And really, the whole purpose is to externalize their emotions onto paper so that they can help process and really kind of provide a new perspective. So our therapy also provides, you know, a way to express what you're feeling or what you're going through in a non verbal form. It's very common that those that are going through a difficult experience can't ever find the right words to describe what they're going through. And I often hear people say, you know, I, I don't know how to tell my my friends and family, they just don't get it. And you know, so really, this is providing a space with like minded people that want not only are sharing a common journey, or some similarities, but also a way to support one another and to process that together.

Unknown Speaker  4:48  
Absolutely, and it's actually interesting, too, that it's very common that I have people that some start in the middle of their their journey of treatment, but some come after. They're just We met. And it's interesting how some of the psychological effects of, you know, a cancer diagnosis and the different stages of that as well. So, you know, even at the end of treatment, many people find some relief, but they also find anxiety because now they're leaving this, this team that they're used to seeing on a regular basis. And so each step of the journey kind of brings up different things that I can help them process.

Unknown Speaker  5:57  
Absolutely, this has been so crucial, especially during the pandemic, you know, a lot of things that people were going through has only exacerbated and then, you know, add isolation to that. And that can be very, very difficult. And so, we've been able to move from an in person platform to a virtual online platform. So that way, we can still provide individual sessions and group and the neat thing is, too, is that, you know, art has innately a more mindfulness, mindfulness based approach to it. So there innately is a relaxation component to it as well. And that's also been, you know, an area that we've been focusing on, since the pandemic, particularly because of all the added, you know, stress that's been going on.

Unknown Speaker  6:54  
So one of the wonderful things about this program is not only is it free to our participants, but it's for anyone touched by cancer in the community, you do not have to be a comatose patient just to participate. So one, I'm really grateful for that, because I really think there is a great need. But also, one of the ways that you can learn about the program is either you can reach out to me or you can go to our website, the website is, slash Flint, art therapy. And on there has different information about the programs that we offer, as well as my contact information. And really what I do is when someone contacts me, I'll I'll see how they're doing and what they're going through maybe what they're looking for from the program, and then we established what programs might be good for them and how to get started.

Unknown Speaker  8:27  
Yeah, absolutely.

Unknown Speaker  8:35  
Oh, absolutely. You know, I, it's actually rare when I run into someone, and they know what art therapy is. So that's usually the starting point. So some of the common mistakes that I you know, often here are faced with this one is that a lot of people think that they have to be good at making art or talented in order to participate. And that's actually the opposite. The whole purpose is to be able to, you know, process what you're going through, and it does not have to look pretty. So we just want you to externalize everything and to experiment, and play and so on. So that way, you can learn more about yourself. And, you know, 95% of the people that come to this program usually have zero art experience coming in. And it's really more about the process of making art than it is the product that comes out. So another thing too, is that a lot of people think that art therapy is like an art class. And although there are some similarities, really, the difference is is that we are using, you know, psychotherapeutic techniques in each session to integrate so that way there is a therapeutic benefit as well. So it's not just the art making and using materials, but I am very intentional of what we're exploring and how to process that together. And then lastly, one of the Other common things is that people think like, kinda like you were saying, with painting with a twist that it seems like arts and crafts sometimes and, you know, it's, it's something that is meant to be enjoyable and so on. But also that time ramble rambling,

Unknown Speaker  10:21  
scratch that.

Unknown Speaker  10:24  
Pick up.

Unknown Speaker  10:37  
Okay, so kind of like with painting with a twist. You know, one of the main things is that yes, it is like an art class in terms of like, I will teach you how to use materials, I don't want you to come in and feel overwhelmed. That's not you know the purpose. But really just so you can learn how to use materials. So that way, when we do do different exercises, you have the tools to be able to create whatever you want. And really that diversity of everyone putting onto paper, their own thoughts and expression is what makes it so unique and special.

Unknown Speaker  11:25  
Absolutely, we have a wonderful opportunity that we have a collaboration with the Flint Institute of Arts. And this is just an example of something is, you know, once a month, we collaborate with one of their docents and they'll show us a piece of artwork. And the first thing that we do is we just all respond at what we see our own interpretation. And even that alone, we see so many different things. And really, that's all based upon what we bring to the table, our background. And then afterwards, based upon the discussion that we've had, we use art to kind of reflect on the experience. And I really think that that's a beautiful thing, because not only are you learning about yourself, but you're learning about others. And that also provides perspective.

Unknown Speaker  12:41  
Yes, and even, even just self reflection, I've heard a lot of patients reflecting upon each other and saying, Well, you've grown I remember when you first came here, like you would have never felt comfortable sharing that or you would have never, you know, set that boundary or whatever it may be. And so it's really interesting not only for people to see it in themselves, but to share with others. And the neat thing about art is that, you know, we're creating and our group and we're expressing and so on, but then that artwork goes home with you, and you can hang it up on your wall, or you can set it up on your counter. And that dialogue continues when you get home. So even what you might share in the group and what you might process then it might continue on at home, and you might learn even more, because that message is still there, and you still have the opportunity to process it. It's really just a beautiful thing.

Unknown Speaker  14:10  
Absolutely, I had even just someone today say how they noticed that just within the past few weeks, that they've been able to sit with their emotions more and that before they you know, they would have felt something difficult, they would have just kind of shoved it away and not been able to deal with it. And so it's really neat to see progress not only because it translates, you know, it's not just one thing, you know, things that you can apply in art can also be applied into life. So if you're learning how to, you know, not to lose control in your art, so to not need control in your artwork, then it also translate to being able to cope with not have you know, that loss of control. For instance, with a pandemic. You know, we've had a lot of things that are not in our control. And same with the cancer journey. There's a lot that is not in your control or things You did not necessarily choose to bring upon yourself. And so it not only helps you kind of learn different coping skills, but also gives you the opportunity to reflect so that you know how to move forward?

Unknown Speaker  15:54  
That's a great question. I have a theory, but I haven't put to the test. One of the main reasons I think it is, is because one women are more open to going to therapy in the first place. And then, in addition, art therapy, so one, I think that that women are more open to it than men. And then with with women, breast cancer is very common. So I think that tends to be kind of the round that it goes, but I have had men join our programs and enjoy it. And, you know, I just want to make sure that that's established that that's something that is, you know, open regardless of your sex.

Unknown Speaker  17:11  
Absolutely, I mean, even psychologically, women bond with other people by sharing so that alone, you know, creates that environment. Absolutely.

Unknown Speaker  17:26  
So currently, all of our groups are our virtual still, I have moved our individual sessions, optional to either virtual or in person in my office. And I'm kind of leaving it up to the you know, the person and what they feel comfortable with.

Unknown Speaker  17:55  
Um, one, I just want to say I'm grateful for this podcast, I think it's a great way to educate and learn and also to people to know that they're not alone. I know myself, I've really been investing more in podcasts ever since the pandemic happen every time I go for a walk and listen to a podcast. So this is a wonderful resource. Also, just in case, you know, anyone is interested and just, you know, seeing different things that are out there, or they're interested in learning more about the program, we do have a virtual art show. that's currently happening right now. And it actually ends June 12. And the way you can see it is at Karmanos that org, slash fitsplint virtual art show. And really, this is just some artwork from different people in the program, and they share a little bit about their story. So I think, one if you're just interested in kind of having some visuals that would be a wonderful resource. And also I am planning on putting together a summer camp for families touched by cancer, and this includes children that are school aged adults, friends, family, survivors, all of the above. So stay tuned for that as well.

Unknown Speaker  19:24  
Absolutely. One of the things I love the most about it is that it makes you it normalizes things, you know you get to see all these other people that are also touched by cancer and and we get to share this space of just enjoying each other's company and so the way that you can stay tuned for more information or to reach out to me, go to Carmel staff org slash Flint art therapy.