The practice of medicine is often referred to as “the healing arts.” At Miami Cancer Institute, however, it’s not just the physicians doing the healing but also a group of seven professional artists. These talented artists-in-residence – musicians and singers as well as visual and literary artists – have been at the cancer center every day since April, engaging with patients and helping them harness the healing power of the arts to better cope with their illness and treatment.
(Watch now: Innovative new program engages cancer patients in the arts. Video by George Carvalho.)
“Building resilience during a cancer patient’s journey is pivotal in terms of improving their outcomes,” says M. Beatriz Currier, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Patient Support Center and chief of psychosocial oncology at Miami Cancer Institute, which is part of Baptist Health South Florida. “Research has shown that bringing the arts into the healthcare setting not only promotes the wellbeing of cancer patients, it can also impact their clinical outcomes.”
A cancer diagnosis often comes with considerable physical and emotional challenges for the patient, according to Dr. Currier, who led the effort to establish the Arts in Medicine program at Miami Cancer Institute. “Artistic engagement gives them healthy coping mechanisms and provides a form of self-expression to help them deal with their illness and its impact on them, their families and their day-to-day lives.”
The objective of the Arts in Medicine program, Dr. Currier says, is to engage patients from the moment they enter the building. “We’ve created an immersive art experience at Miami Cancer Institute,” she says. “Everywhere you turn, there are visual artists creating artwork or musicians and vocalists performing in our lobbies and waiting areas.” In addition, patients may request an arts in medicine consultation while undergoing treatment in their individual chemotherapy infusion suites.
According to Dr. Currier, a growing body of clinical evidence shows that patients who engage in the arts – listening to music, for example – report significantly lower levels of stress, anxiety and nausea during their chemotherapy infusions. In addition, she says “there is compelling research demonstrating that patients who listen to music before surgery report significantly lower levels of pain after surgery and often require less pain medication in the post-operative period.”
The artists-in-residence are under contract for a full year and are at Miami Cancer Institute every day, according to Dr. Currier. “We wanted to ensure there is an opportunity for any of our cancer patients to engage with the arts at any point in their treatment,” she says.
Connecting with and uplifting patients through art and music
Robyn Savitzky, a professional violist, is one of the seven artists selected for the Arts in Medicine program and is thrilled to be doing her first residency in a healthcare setting. “It’s really rewarding to be creating music in such a beautiful setting, which was clearly designed with a lot of intention around providing a positive experience for patients,” she says. “As a musician, it offers me lots of opportunities to connect with patients and humanize what is a very challenging time for them.”
Ms. Savitzky says music and art can provide so much comfort for patients and can quickly change their experience for the better. “I’ve watched patients transform instantly while I’m playing for them. You can see it in their body language – their shoulders relax, a smile comes to their face – it’s beautiful.”
For Ms. Savitzky, being able to perform for patients at Miami Cancer Institute is a privilege. “I’m really passionate about sharing music with all kinds of people,” she says. “To be able to connect with patients here and uplift their spirits through my music is so meaningful. Many of them tell me what a soothing experience it was, and that it made a really big difference in their day.”
Giving cancer patients a few minutes of happiness
One of those patients is Cristina Underwood, who is undergoing immunotherapy treatment at Miami Cancer Institute for peritoneal mesothelioma, a type of malignant cancer that develops in the thin layer of tissue lining the abdomen. There is no cure for her disease, unfortunately, but it can be managed as long as she is willing to undergo infusions every three weeks.
It’s a grueling regimen. Ms. Underwood comes in every 21 days for infusion. Afterwards, she feels “not so great” for 10 days and then she starts mentally preparing herself for the next round. To make matters worse, Ms. Underwood is recovering from a hysterectomy a month ago – major surgery for even the healthiest of women.
To help her cope with her cancer journey, Ms. Underwood takes full advantage of the cancer patient support services offered at Miami Cancer Institute, including massage therapy, counseling, support groups and, now, art and music.
“One day back in April when I was here for my infusion, (visual artist-in-residence) Alexis Caputo came up to me with her art cart and asked if I wanted to do art,” recalls Ms. Underwood, who loves to paint. “I said sure and asked her how much but she laughed and told me it was free. She gave me some paper and paint and I had a few minutes of happiness.”
Now, Ms. Underwood says, she looks forward to coming to Miami Cancer Institute for her treatments, and she’s certain many other patients will get something out of it, too.
“Having artists performing while you’re here helps take your mind off what you’re here for. It’s a moment where you can forget everything you’re going through,” Ms. Underwood says, wiping away tears. “You’re so moved by the music – it changes your attitude and makes you feel good. You feel like you can keep going.”
Researching the impact of the arts on patient outcomes
Research, Dr. Currier says, is an integral component of the Arts in Medicine program, which she hopes will become a permanent part of the cancer patient support services available at Miami Cancer Institute.
“We’ve seen firsthand how these artistic interventions can lead to diminished anxiety and depression in our patients, and an improvement in their overall wellbeing,” says Dr. Currier. “We’re actively documenting the impact these artistic interventions have on our patients’ clinical outcomes.”
Launched in April, the Arts in Medicine program has already resulted in more than 1,000 individual patient encounters over the past two months, according to Dr. Currier, not to mention numerous impromptu group performances at the cancer center.
Bringing the arts to Miami Cancer Institute not only soothes patients and reduces their stress, Dr. Currier says, it also improves the overall wellbeing of their caregivers and the hospital staff. “When our artists are performing, it elevates everyone’s mood on the floor.” In addition, she says, research has shown that music actually enhances communication between patient and the healthcare staff – another benefit of Arts in Medicine.
“For many of our patients, their cancer experience has been enriched by these talented artists,” Dr. Currier says. “For me, personally, it’s been profoundly moving and inspirational to see the immediate positive impact of the arts on our patients.”