The art of healing

Nancy Morgan influences the environment of cancer therapy

Ian Brooks 10 September 2006

Persuasive: Morgan addressing an Arts benefit entitled 'Laughter is the Best Medicine'

The world is fighting us in terms of our health

Editor’s note: Nancy Morgan, director of Arts and Humanities at The Lombardi Cancer Center, recently spoke with Ian Brooks for about her ambitious program to influence remission rates by bringing art into a traditional treatment facility.

Nancy Morgan says she got a flavor of what she was in for the day she scheduled a dance performance in the lobby of the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University soon after her appointment as director of its Arts and Humanities program.

"There will be no dance," she was told. "This is a somber place". Morgan, a slender, soft-spoken woman, smiles and adds, "It’s interesting to have a challenge."

Today, thanks to Morgan, the Center offers introductory art and dance classes, creative writing courses, a rotating exhibition of art, and a concert series open to patients, staff and visitors. Her small office, easily accessible to all, seems to be a microcosm of the program – brightly colored paintings on the walls, a desk liberally littered with smaller artifacts, a box full of musical instruments by her feet.

Morgan moved into her current position at the Lombardi in 2001, where her main activities focus on coordinating and directing the diverse group of artists and former patients who offer their services to the center, but she has been in arts administration in one form or another for the past 31 years. Her first appointment was in a rural community in North Carolina; later she worked in an art gallery in Virginia that encouraged children displaced from Vietnam to use poetry to express themselves. This, she says, is where she was first struck by the healing power of art.

Her experiences led her to pursue a Masters Degree in the then-new Transformative Language Arts program at Goddard College; later, she worked with brain-injured adults, helping restore social skills through writing. In this area, she says that she’s been heavily influenced by Professor James Pennebaker of The University of Texas, Austin, who was the first to study systematically the effect of language and writing on emotional and physical health.

She highlights the goals of the center by talking about current and former patients. One was exposed to painting therapy and discovered a new talent for art. Now in remission, he returns regularly to teach and guide painting groups. Recently Morgan was approached by two relatives of Lombardi patients. One patient was now in remission; the other had succumbed to her cancer and died. Despite the dramatically different circumstances, both relatives thanked Morgan for the arts programs that meant so much to the patients.

Morgan herself understands this all to well; both her husband and her mother died of cancer. She explains how she herself used writing therapy to aid in the healing process, in which facing one’s fears through the creative process is akin to undergoing a form of confession. "It forces you to focus on whatever may be causing psychological distress," she says.

Although scientific research into the effect of art therapies on cancer remission rates is scarce, Morgan says there is evidence that patients who participate in the various programs on offer show significant changes in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as alternations in their awareness and sensation of pain. She also highlights the natural aspect of the therapies offered, saying these alternatives are "the antidote to our current world. The world is fighting us in terms of our health."

Lombardi is one of only a few centers offering such programs to patients, relatives and staff. "Universities and research institutes have the resources to make programs like this possible," she says. The Lombardi, along with several other universities including Duke, Michigan State and The University of Florida, Gainesville, are in the forefront of researching and analyzing the impact of these alternative therapies. Recently representatives from thirteen institutions, including Morgan, recently met in Wyoming to sketch out a charter for the various programs.

To further our understanding of how these programs may benefit cancer sufferers as well as other groups, Morgan is participating in a pilot study to be submitted to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. She is collaborating with Dr. Bruce Cheson, a physician, and Dr. Kristi Graves, a clinical psychologist, to study how cancer changes the patient before and after exposure to art and other alternative therapies. She is clearly fired up by the opportunity to put her method to the empirical test.

In her five years at the Lombardi, Morgan has largely succeeded in countering the prevailing opinion that her activities are too fringe to be of any use. While she can understand the traditionalist point of view, she says her job is to deliberately, yet sympathetically, disrupt the institutional atmosphere and replace it with one of art, beauty and hope. When she talks passionately about her work, I am reminded of an unrelenting force of nature, like the Colorado River carving out the Grand Canyon. I suspect that the traditionalists never had a chance.

Related information

Access the Lombardi Cancer Center’s webpage here.

Learn more about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine here.