“It fills us up with joy:” Art therapy helps reduce pain, anxiety for woman diagnosed with breast cancer

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Art is more than beautiful -- it can be therapeutic. Studies show art therapy can reduce pain and anxiety in cancer patients. And one local woman who, despite a devastating diagnosis, learned things about herself over the course of her healing.

Gloria Boileau is a professional speaker and published author. Her life in California got put on hold when her mom here in Milwaukee needed a caretaker.

"I only anticipated being in Milwaukee for three weeks -- and that was six years ago last month," said Gloria Boileau.

After dealing with her mom's health, Gloria wanted to make sure she was healthy -- and she got a mammogram. It came back normal.

But shortly thereafter, during a self breast exam, she found a lump.

"From the time I walked in the doctor's office and forward for the next year and a half, to present, everything changed so dramatically," said Boileau.

Doctors diagnosed the 63-year-old with breast cancer. Gloria's support system was strong during her months of treatment.

"What was very surprising that I didn't expect, was the void that came after the chemotherapy and radiation," said Boileau.

Gloria knew she had to figure something out, but didn't know what it was, until she remembered being at the Cancer Center at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin and seeing a flyer for art therapy.

Art Therapy Classroom at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin"I had no idea what it was going to be like, but I thought 'I need to be with like-minded people, and I need to have people around me that understand this journey,'" said Boileau.

Together, the people in these art sessions learn to cope with cancer.

"I was fascinated more by what was going on with the group and the conversation that was happening, than the artwork. Suddenly, I realized I'm not alone," said Boileau.

Carrie Danhieux- Poole

Carrie Danhieux- Poole

Art therapist Carrie Danhieux- Poole says that beyond just coming in and making art, artists are able to step back, relax and feel normal in the midst of everything else going on in their lives.

"They can talk through the door and people describe it as an escape. That nothing in here will hurt you. They don't get bad news in here. In fact, some come for the support, so the art making opportunity brings them together, but it quickly becomes more about connecting with other people," said Danhieux-Poole.

The greatest gift Gloria received in the more than eight months of coming to sessions?

"Art therapy is confined to a room, but when we really embrace what's going on, it touches our soul. It opens up our heart, it fills us up with joy. I'd walk out with that feeling, I can do anything I want," said Boileau.

And that's exactly what Gloria did -- from taking an electric guitar class to hula lessons. Gloria even signed up for the Senior Olympics and walked away with five medals.

"What was amazing was to see how my art changed," said Boileau.

Gloria Boileau

Gloria Boileau

"I think art therapy really touches the human side of cancer or the human side of a cancer diagnosis. We as therapists in the medical setting are high-touch and low tech. A lot of other areas are quite the opposite, and I think people need a bit of human touch in this difficult medical stuff they're going through with cancer," said Danhieux-Poole.

Art Therapy Classroom at Froedtert and the Medical College of WisconsinGloria says she now understands what it meant when people told her life was going to be different with cancer.

"What I want to say to others is that different is gonna be what you make of it. One can spiral down and succumb to the downdraft and stay on the couch, as I was doing -- or you can rise to something much higher and much greater. It was through this art therapy that I was able to walk through that door from laying on the couch -- into basically a phoenix rising and it's been absolutely beautiful," said Boileau.

Any adult touched by cancer -- a patient, survivor, caregiver -- is welcome to attend the art therapy open studio.

Sessions are held twice a week at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin in the Cancer Center -- and you don't need to have art-making experience.

It's important for every man and woman to become familiar with their breasts, and it's never too late to start doing those self-exams.


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