Art as a way to process worries, anxiety during cancer journey

‘Painting, drawing, sculpting or any kind of art is a wonderful way of freeing your mind,’ says cancer survivor Jill Covell.
Artist Jill Covell, with paint brush in hand, sits in front of two of her paintings, including one showing a butterfly and a dragon.
Artist Jill Covell created a series of work called "Jill's Journey" that visually interprets her cancer experience. (Photo courtesy of Jill Covell)

If artists have proven one thing over the centuries, it is that they can turn pain and suffering into inspiration.

No one knows this better than Jill Covell. Her pleasant life as an artist in Ventura was rocked two years ago when she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She now calls it a hidden blessing for unlocking some of her inner creativity.
As she began treatment at UCLA Health, Covell had full confidence that she would get the best medical care available to help her beat the cancer. She decided to go all in on taking care of her health with diet and exercise. But she also knew she was in for a fight with cancer and would need all the inner strength she could muster to keep her spirits up.

Covell had a potent tool to get her through the grueling journey. As a professional artist, she knew very well the therapeutic value of art. So, she was delighted to find that the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology offered an art therapy support group for people with cancer as part of its philosophy of treating the whole person – mind, body and spirit.

"What a perfect outlet for me, or anyone, to vent out our feelings about our cancer and our treatments, and just let the stress and worries flow out of us onto paper, canvas, or any artistic medium you might choose," said Covell, who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in painting and drawing from UCLA before obtaining a Master's Degree in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University.

Healing with every brush stroke

So Covell plunged into using her art as a mindful way to calm and center herself. She mainly focused on painting and found that virtually every brush stroke erased a little pain and anxiety about her condition and treatments. She found that putting her focus into creativity would often take her to an elevated spiritual place, she said, above the burdens of everyday life and medical appointments.

"Painting, drawing, sculpting or any kind of art is a wonderful way of freeing your mind, and forgetting about exactly how you feel, or worrying about the next treatment," Covell said. "It becomes a wonderful form of expression, but also a treatment all its own. It makes me feel better every time, mentally, physically and spiritually."

One of Covell's first exercises in art therapy was simply to draw white blood cells as she pictured them multiplying in her body. This helped her to visualize and demystify her organic enemy. 

Facing the cancer through her art helped Covell keep a positive attitude and work through her frustrations with cancer and dealing with insurance companies as she proceeded through treatment.

Covell created a series of paintings called "Jill's Journey." It puts her experience into images, from blood cells healing to a dragon facing a butterfly. 

“It’s more about how delicate and fragile you feel as a cancer patient and how you have to find that fierce inner strength to get through the treatments,” she said.

While Covell was right in her element using art as therapy, she stresses that anyone can benefit from it, even if they have no artistic skills or experience. She says everyone has an inner artist.

"The end result is not really the point. It is a very personal expression for the person, to vent out those feelings and help yourself get to a better place. It is very liberating and empowering, which is something you really need while battling cancer," Covell said. "So of course, knowing how much it has soothed and helped me, I want to encourage others to use art as therapy while they get through their own experience with cancer."

Encouraging others

Now cancer-free, Covell still values art therapy. It reduces her worries about the cancer coming back and soothes other stresses of life. But her new mission is to spread the value of art therapy to other people with cancer and to survivors. 

While Covell now is enjoying a very healthy life as a "young 61-year-old," she can relate to people new to the cancer journey, as she remembers vividly what it felt like when she was diagnosed and facing chemotherapy. Her fiancé left her, and she had to sell her sign-making business to focus on treatments and beating the disease. 

The one bright spot, she said, was plunging deeper into art to keep herself centered.

"That's what I try to share with other patients. Find something good that reminds you that you are lucky to be alive and life has so much to offer, even during treatments. Stay positive, and it will get better," she said.

Covell developed CALM Art, a soothing practice combining art with meditation and music. She does a combination of in-person and online classes.

"It is designed to encourage 'alpha wavelengths' in your brain, to promote relaxation and creativity," Covell said. "I start with teaching people just to draw doodles, and just get into a relaxed frame of mind, not thinking too hard, but feeling creative."

But always, her reminder to students is not to worry about the end result of the practice, or what anyone else might think.

"This is just for you. You are the artist. It is your story, and the most important thing is that expressing it helps you on your journey with cancer, with your health, and your life," Covell said.

Learn more

Learn more about the support groups offered at the Simms/Mann Center for Integrative Oncology.

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