Cheri Stephenson worked diligently on alternating color lines inside a spoked wheel on her big white pad while Heather Romig lightly sketched Stephenson with a pencil in her book Monday in the infusion area of Georgia Regents University Cancer Center.
Both have had their lives upended by cancer. Stephenson was diagnosed at the beginning of February with a rare and frequently deadly form of leukemia and is being treated with a new protocol pioneered at the center; Romig’s 13-year-old daughter, Faith, battled thyroid cancer and only last month got a clean bill of health.
As they sketched, they chatted about everything but cancer, particularly their shared love of photography and the time they spent living in California.
“I miss all of the outdoor stuff we used to do on the West Coast,” Romig said.
“Oh, yeah,” Stephenson said. “We used to bike all of the time.”
Romig is at the cancer center as part of an art therapy internship at GRU, a new program between the Department of Art and the center that could blossom into a graduate program in art therapy at the school. Officials are meeting this week to decide whether they want to pursue that degree program, said Alan MacTaggart, the chairman of the Department of Art.
The art therapy is just the latest element of integrative therapy at the cancer center, which has already added music therapy and is working on others such as meditation in the next six to nine months, said Dr. Samir N. Khleif, the director of the cancer center.
The point is not to simply treat disease in the patient, he said.
“We only want to approach cancer by treating or addressing the whole well-being of the patient,” Khleif said. “And the whole well-being of the patient includes things other than direct therapy for the disease itself.
“All of this (integrative therapy) has been shown to help a lot in the patient’s outcome and the patient’s well-being.”
There is a psychological toll, Romig said, starting with the diagnosis, which her daughter seemed to take in stride.
“Honestly, I think she probably handled it better than I did,” Romig said. Faith took the attitude of “let’s deal with it, let’s fight it and move on.”
“I actually gained some strength from her strength,” Romig added. “It helped me to see it from a new perspective.”
In fact, Romig didn’t know that it would be cancer patients she would be helping when she inquired about the therapy program but is glad it turned out that way.
“I thought, Wow, what a great opportunity because it kind of helps me deal with my own personal experiences and in that I hope that I can help other people cope and find other ways to deal with their circumstances,” she said.
There would be an appeal to other art students interested in art therapy, MacTaggart said.
“It’s something that I think is very compelling, because who wouldn’t want to help those unfortunate enough to be inflicted with something that serious?” he said.
As a medical center, Augusta would be the ideal place for it, MacTaggart said.
“I can’t think of a better location to do that kind of thing than Augusta,” he said. “Augusta has such a high concentration of medical facilities and hospitals and (Veterans Affairs) operations. That kind of therapy would be superb for someone who has problems from being on the battlefield or has lost limbs or something like that (and needs positive reinforcement).”
Positive feelings can result, and there is something liberating about making art that can aid the therapy, Romig said.
“Art causes you to go into your own world and be creative and imaginative,” she said. “That is priceless, to be able to do that. …It is a positive expressive outlet for a patient. …”
Stephenson is clearly enjoying working with the colored pencils as she receives treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia.
The GRU Cancer Center has a $1.67 million grant to pursue its protocol, along with a consortium of facilities in the Southeast.
Stephenson was getting her 20th treatment at the center but talked instead about her father (a local photographer), the love of photography she inherited from him and just what the chance to do art along with her chemotherapy is doing for her.
“It’s got me interested in art again,” she said. “I bought a whole bunch of art supplies.”
There is a payoff for those patients – selections from their artwork will be displayed at 5 p.m. March 21 at the Morris Museum of Art Education Gallery.