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The Healing Power of Arts for our Cancer Patients

Originally published May 31, 2024

Last updated May 31, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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Mom and daughter pose back to back smiling

How the Institute for Arts in Medicine reduces stress and depression and encourages self-expression.

After Heaven Wright was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she spent almost five months at USC Norris Cancer Hospital waiting for and recovering from a bone marrow transplant. One of the hardest challenges for the 30-year-old single mom was being separated from her 10-year-old daughter, Monroe, who was living out of town with Heaven’s mother while Heaven was being treated.

“My little girl is everything to me,” she says. “I felt stripped of being a mother.”

The Institute for Arts in Medicine (I_AM), a Keck Medicine of USC healing arts initiative, devised an innovative way to bring mom and daughter together and lift Heaven’s spirits: through song.

Assisted by I_AM songwriter David Webster and producer Solomon Smart, the two spent several months writing and recording a duet called “Modern Miracle,” which they rehearsed and performed during Monroe’s visits in various hospital conference rooms. In the song, their voices blend beautifully together in an upbeat anthem of hope and gratitude about the life-saving power of transplants. Additionally, Webster sang and recorded another original song based on Heaven’s journal entries, called “Breath of Heaven,” which focuses on her prayers for a full recovery.

“To be able to share my story in such a creative way with my daughter has helped me cope and focus on the positive,” says Heaven. “I also believe my story will inspire others to realize miracles can happen.” Heaven is now back at home with Monroe, enjoying their usual activities of going to the park, taking trips to the beach and making music.

The music program Heaven participated in, in which patients are invited to work with a songwriter/composer to create an original song or cover of a favorite song, often along with a music video, is one of the many artistic outlets I_AM makes available to patients treated at the cancer center.  

Other services include a Poetry for Patients program, in which poets-in-residence write customized poetry for patients and lead poetry workshops; a Visual Arts Engagement program where artists provide custom artworks for patients and patients have access to art materials in a “creative corner” at USC Norris; body paintings by I_AM artist Savannah Mohacsi to help patients visualize and manifest good health; and interactive gaming and virtual experiences.

Founded in 2019, I_AM draws on the premise that the arts in patient care have the potential to reduce levels of stress and depression, thereby improving clinical outcomes.

“Art also provides a meaningful outlet for self-expression and allows individuals to explore other aspects of their identities they may have not been able to tap into since their cancer diagnoses,” says the co-founder of the Institute, Genevieve “Viva” Nelson. “The results can be powerful and affirming.”

Over the last five years, more than 2,200 individuals have benefitted from I­­_AM. The institute also has a core group of dedicated volunteers, many who are current USC students. Our oncology physicians work closely with the institute, and become partners in patients’ creative, as well as medical, journeys.

I­_AM also contains a research component. Institute co-founder Dr. Jacek Pinski, a medical oncologist with Keck Medicine, is developing clinical trials on therapeutic interventions for patients receiving chemotherapy or other medical procedures.

He recently launched a pilot study for individuals undergoing bone marrow biopsies, investigating if virtual reality headsets that simulate a peaceful environment such as a beach or the mountains can lessen the pain and stress of the procedure. He is also working on a grant proposal to study the clinical benefits of music therapy in patients with prostate cancer. 

As for the future, the institute plans to broaden its expressive arts services to organ transplant patients, who, like cancer patients, often face long hospital stays. Viva and her team have also begun collaborating with our Street Medicine team to bring the arts to the unhoused in need of medical care.

I_AM receives many heartfelt thanks from both patients and their family members. One individual wrote that creating art was a positive distraction from the worries of the disease, while another said that the music program helped them emerge from an emotional hole they couldn’t climb out of. And a patient with colorectal cancer said how beautiful and hopeful she felt when her surgical scars were covered by a vibrant body painting of healthy organs.

But perhaps prostate cancer patient Don Collier, who is also a prolific poet and regular attendee of the I­­_AM poetry workshop, sums up the impact of the institute best:

“The I_AM program helps patients realize we are much more than a blood panel, PSA reading or stack of medical images,” says Don. “We are at USC Norris for the incredible staff and the state-of-the-art medical services, but also for the encouragement that we are more than the sum of our parts and the acknowledgement that we are whole, noble and spiritual beings.”

Cancer is a devastating diagnosis.  Any treatment plan is made stronger with a holistic approach, as demonstrated by our healing arts initiative and the heartfelt responses from our patients.

To be able to share my story in such a creative way with my daughter has helped me cope and focus on the positive.

Heaven Wright

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Rod Hanners
Rod Hanners is the CEO of Keck Medicine of USC.

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