Healing Creatively

Interacting with artists in the Cancer Center's Healing Arts Program helps patients cope with stress, calm their bodies, and engage their minds.

The anxious patient was from Jordan and didn't speak much English.

Focus article photo

Harpist Margaret Stephens, an integral member of the Cancer Center's Healing Arts program, soothes a patient with gentle, calming harp music.

But a nurse had asked therapeutic harpist Margaret Stephens to come to her room. When Stephens began to play the Beethoven and Mozart she requested, the patient sat up in bed and leaned close.

"I was concerned that something was wrong and then realized she was moving closer to the harp," Stephens says, adding: "She was very obviously involved in listening. A relative translated that she was imagining being out in a field and involved with nature. She really enjoyed the music, and thanked me for coming. The family said they could see a change on her face."

That patient's reaction is not uncommon as Stephens goes about the hospital, visiting patients and playing in waiting areas. She's part of the Creative Arts Program, managed by the Patient and Family Support Services office at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, which brings music, art and writing to patients and families.

The program got its start at the Koop Institute as a collaboration between medical students and inpatients. Rebecca Gottesman is the program's artist in residence; writer Marv Klassen-Landis works with cancer patients on writing projects; and Stephens handles the musical part of the program.

Having artists interact with patients is more than a way to channel stress and anxiety, bring catharsis and offer diversions, says Elisabeth Gordon of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's Arts Program, which helps oversee the program. "Studies show that engaging in uplifting visual art, music and literature can slow a person's heart rate, lower their blood pressure, decrease their need for pain medication, and lower their stress level," she says.

"Music often helps family and patients release emotions or provide a comforting background sound when people are at a loss for words," comments Stephens. "Sometimes I work with children who are in the waiting area and let them have a chance to experience the harp and pick out a tune."

The important thing about engaging in the arts is not the finished product, says Gordon; it's the process itself that matters. "All of our artists are knowledgeable about working with patients who are in isolation, immobile, or limited in other ways," she notes.

"Hearing uplifting poems written by other patients is a favorite request. We have had patients who were unable to speak write lyrics with the help of a computer, or a blind patient engage in art making. Each artist can usually adapt their work to accommodate the patient so that virtually anyone can benefit from engaging with them," she says.

As Gordon sees it, "The act of creating is in these cases more important than the results. The act of engagement can give a person a sense that they are larger than their disease and a unique being with much to offer."

Based on the belief that art contributes to and reinforces the healing process for patients with cancer, NCCC will host exhibits of juried works by New England artists this fall. Please join NCCC for opening receptions at Norris Cotton Cancer Center Manchester on September 27, Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon on October 4, and Norris Cotton Cancer Center Nashua on October 11. All are scheduled for 5:30-7:00 p.m. Call (603) 703-6955 for info.

To learn more about Creative Arts or to request that an artist visit your department, call (603) 650-7751. To request harpist Margaret Stephens, contact Patient and Family Support Services at

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in CenterView, DHMC's online employee newsletter. It was written by Susanna French of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Communications and Marketing department.


August 20, 2012