Home » Art, literature and humor in relieving cancer related distress

Mental health conditions are believed to be under-diagnosed in cancer patients and although experts seem to disagree if PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) is the proper label for what people are experiencing, when faced with a cancer diagnosis, many consider that it may be a useful lens. A trauma-informed perspective on cancer care would be highly beneficial for all those doctors and patients fighting this life-threatening disease.

Psychologists and researchers are trying to shine a little light on this issue, exploring the latest research in this topic and to provide examples of resilience, post-traumatic growth and behaviours, patterns and coping tools that foster development and healing. A series of online materials and resources are documenting the role of art, literature and humor in relieving cancer related distress.

Bessel Van der Kolk, who, in his book „The Body Keeps the Score”, describes the healing, growth inducing powers of art therapy in traumatized patients and also writes about the potential of therapeutic writing or literature in aiding the reframing of the traumatic event and clearing the path to healing from trauma. 

Ágnes Viola Riskó a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and training analyst of Hungarian Psychoanalytical Society, who has an over 30 years of experience at the National Institute of Oncology (NIO) also showed in an interview the art works of an oncological patient, created as a bridge to be built through the cancer journey and some truly emotional poetry written by a young oncology patient, which showed an incredible strength some find in opening their healing/suffering process to the world. 

Alaine Polcz, the great personality of the Hungarian thanatology, the founder of the Hungarian Hospice movement, was an incredibly productive writer and documented not only her dying husband’s process, but also her own. Her book, „Nem trappolok tovabb – I will go no further” is actually a dictated chronicle of her total physical collapse, but also giving the opportunity to have a conversation throughout the process with her truly amazing sizzling mind. 

Another great reading is Susan Sonntag’s “Illness and Metaphor”, which opens our eyes to the  strain of “metaphorical thinking” about cancer, and chronic illness in general, but gives much more than that, a personal story about coming to terms with what is culturally considered a death sentence. Eszterhazy Peter’s “Pancreas Diary”, is actually a journal of the writer’s relationship with his diseased organ, questioning whether it is a separate entity with a will of its own. 

The studied literature supports the use of humour as a therapeutic intervention. The ability to apply and comprehend humour is associated with coping skills and is particularly relevant to people with chronic or terminal illness. Humor can also help lateral relationships between professionals and patients–relatives and can lead the patient to recognize medical professionals as being closer. Humor also generates confidence and can both strengthen and consolidate the therapeutic relationship and brings benefits to any type of  communication.

The writings of authors dealing with cancer could be used as cultural prescriptions for the people embarked in the oncological journey, providing them examples of resilience and coping tools that foster development and healing. In this respect, Hanna Ugron, a master’s degree student in Consultancy and Psychological Intervention at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, is exploring through a series of podcast episodes the topic of cancer and chronic-illness related PTSD. Listen her podcast here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/23mcnIkkjcI6Zb1gCoCesf