A primary factor for how a child will react to having cancer is age and
developmental level. A child the age you will be working with is usually
concerned with fear of bodily injury and pain, loss of identity, and of
course the typical adolescent/pre-adolescent concerns of body image,
sexuality, and peer group status. The kind of cancer and treatment (for
example, loss of hair) can greatly influence these concerns.
The one point I would stress is to keep in mind that the child with
cancer is first of all a child-a child is a very rotten situation, but
first off. Although children with cancer often will use art to express
their feelings and concerns, they also enjoy art for other reasons as
well:an opportunity to make choices (for they may have few real
decisions about their treatment), an opportunity to be in an actice role
(for they are on the receiving end of many unpleasant things), an
opportunity to do something familiar that other children enjoy, a way to
distract themselves from worries and even pain, to learn about
themselves and even about art.
So, my first suggestion is to let her decide how she will use art. In
training artists to work with children in pediatric settings, I ask them
to let the child be the guide-not to mention illness or issues
surrounding it, to let the child bring it up when her or she is ready.
They often bring up the topic while they are working or when talking
about their completed piece with you. In other words, both the process
and/or the product become communication tools.
So, looking at how chidren with cancer can use the arts to cope with
their situation, think about and mention the many choices your student
has: a variety of materials, colors, etc.- and even the choice of saying
to you "I don't want to do anything." You have still given the child an
incredible gift-saying "no" to something and having that honored.There
are and will be many situations for your student where this will not be
With children who have life threatening illnesses, I like to offer
activities that give them opportunities to "leave their mark," such as
printmaking and stuff with clay. Also think about the anger these
children may feel about their situation and how difficult it might be
especially for a child this age to express it. So she may really enjoy
rolling the brayer and rolling and pounding clay to create her art.
You may want to involve her siblings and other family members in art
activities-either doing their own thing or working together on a group
project. Siblings of children with cancer are often under more stress
than the child with cancer or the parents.
Carefully consider the materials you use, for children with cancer often
become immunosuppressed at certain points during their treatment. For
example, you wouldn't want to expose her to sand off the beach for
casting, but can ususally substitute purchased clean sand and have her
Lastly, keep in mind that today most children (about 80% and even higher
for certain types of cancer) survive. I wish you the best of luck. If
you would like additional information, please e-mail your postal