The Bone Fractured Fairy Tale: A Story of Art as Salvation

Art allows us to feel whole, even when broken.

Posted Apr 28, 2009

At the age of 23, Jennifer Brunner was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer that affects one out of over 300,000 children each year. Yet Brunner was a young adult, a university student, and a self-proclaimed health nut. In her words, she had won the "crap lotto" and ended up in a children's hospital for treatment that was both physically depleting and often toxic, to rid her body of cancer.

Fortunately, making images, photography, and writing became part of the treatment. They began as therapy, but in the end became art, allegory, and, ultimately, a compelling story to inspire all who confront mortality when living with the diagnosis of cancer. Brunner's body of art and writing resulted in a one-woman show, "A Bone Fractured Fairy Tale: My Year Lost in Cancer Land," and in true storybook fashion, includes a princess, monsters, demons, and a pink unicorn. But the good news is this: Brunner is now cancer-free, studying to be a nurse, engaged, and planning the travel she envisioned, pre-diagnosis. Of course, art was not the cure, but it certainly was part of her healing.

In a growing number of hospitals across the US, cancer patients are using art to express emotions and reduce stress. It is one application of art therapy that has demonstrated outcome through several evidence-based studies. And it's the subject of a recent public radio interview, "The Role of Art in Healing," featuring Brunner's first person account, and observations by art therapist Emily Johnson and yours truly about the importance of art therapy in cancer recovery and health in general. You can listen to the audio to learn more about Brunner's journey and the field of medical art therapy right here.

During the time of Brunner's exhibition, good news emerged about the role of art therapy in the overall health and well being of women with breast cancer. Swedish researchers reported that women having radiation treatment for breast cancer experienced lasting improvements in mental and physical health and quality of life after participating in as little as five sessions of art therapy. After six months, women who had participated in art therapy showed significant improvements in their overall quality of life, general health, physical health, and psychological health; the control group only showed improvements in psychological health. The women who participated in art therapy also had improvements in their perceptions of body image, outlook, and side effects of radiation treatment.

While this research is wonderful news about the usefulness of the healing arts with physical illness, I feel fortunate to have learned from Jennifer Brunner and other cancer survivors that art is not just merely a way to cope with and adapt to a cancer diagnosis. It is a lifeline, a unique level of vision, and a force of imagination that takes us to a place beyond ourselves. Brunner's story teaches us that art can save us from circumstances that seem to have no solutions. And it allows us to feel whole, even when we are fractured and broken.

And yes, I am back to writing, despite a series of personal fractured fairytales and assorted side trips. It's good to be home.

© 2009 Cathy Malchiodi

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