Monday, June 20, 2005

Cancer survivor Ruth Aloni shows some of the artwork she produced as a part of her battle against cancer.

Patient creations

JOHN BLACK shuffled into the office, looking pale and withdrawn but somehow determined to learn to juggle like a circus clown.

Getting in touch

Anyone interested in more information, classes or making a donation to the Hands on Healing program can contact Sandy Rhines at the American Cancer Society at 595-7500 or the Honolulu Unit at 595-7544, the Central Leeward Unit at 486-8420 or the Windward Unit at 262-5124. Ruth Aloni also can be contacted by e-mail at Ruth44aries@hotmail.com.

First, he concentrated on throwing one beanbag, up and down. It required his full focus and, likely, his full energy.

When he got the hang of it, other beanbags were added. And then, like a kid riding a two-wheel bike unassisted for the first time, Black was soon grinning with a rush of accomplishment: a spinning blur of beanbags over his head.

And for the moment, the weight of his battle with cancer lifted.

"Juggling is very entertaining and energizing," said Black, the retired publisher of Hawaii Hospitality Magazine. "It takes you out of yourself. The idea is to focus on something physical that is totally outside of oneself to occupy the mind and body. That's the pleasure of it."

Black is one of a fledgling group of cancer patients and survivors who are experimenting with various art classes as play therapy for the mind that gives them a refuge they control away from the pain of surgeries, treatments and grinding emotions like fear, pointlessness and isolation.

The program, Hands on Healing, teaches patients and their caregivers, if they want to join in, skills from painting watercolors or pottery to making jewelry or "washi" paper eggs in discount-rated classes with other cancer patients and survivors. It is the creation of Ruth Aloni, who survived two fierce fights with advanced cancers in part using art such as painting and drawing and knitting scarves from quirky wools "to help quiet the mind."

Aloni, who defied medical expectations both times she survived, said: "The power of the mind plays such a huge role in the way you are and how you cope."

"Art is one of those little pleasures we don't always know we have in ourselves, but that we can give to ourselves. I want others to find a mental and physical space where they can find some peace."

Aloni said that art also gave her the sense of pleasure and accomplishment she lost when she became a full-time patient.

"Art gives the mind a safe place to go and a distraction," she said. "But at the same time, you see the joy of the little thing that you are creating, and it gives you positive stimulation that you can then build on. And that's something you've lost, too, but you can learn to give to yourself through art."

Cancer survivor Ruth Aloni, left, meets with members of Hands on Healing, Loren Lasher, second from left, Sandy Rhines and Jackie Young, right, regarding art therapy programs.

Aloni, a no-nonsense businesswoman born in Australia, never picked up a paintbrush until she faced a difficult divorce followed quickly by a diagnosis of advanced colon cancer in April 2001. She was then diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and used art throughout her surgeries and treatments as one way "to fight like hell to survive."

She has since pushed to find like-minded teachers, funding from sources such as the Schuler Family Foundation and the Construction Specification Institute and fought to build the program with encouragement from the American Cancer Society. She has also found local retailers willing to volunteer time and resources, including BeadIt, Creations by You, Yarn and Needlecraft, and Yarn and Friends.

Aloni saw her fight against cancer as a way of learning "how to shut off certain (negative) buttons and processes in your brain and resetting your thinking."

She warns that common feelings of isolation and loneliness are dangerous because those are the times the mind takes over with fears and unanswerable questions. Those are the times she needs a peaceful refuge she can control.

"Art focuses my mind and gives my hands something to do. And before long, I am immersed and so directed that I barely know an hour has gone by. I lose myself in this space, and then I have created something concrete and feel accomplishment, something I had lost," said Aloni.

Eileen Tokita, whom Aloni recruited as a teacher for the program after spending hours with her learning to make intricate crystal-studded key chains and purses, believes in the benefit of art for cancer patients.

Tokita has taught craft classes for the past 30 years across Oahu and on cruise ships but volunteers for the program because she has watched people close to her go through cancer.

"When you're sick you feel out of control," said Tokita. "Focusing on some little project and finishing it helps get your mind off your disease and gives you a feeling of control."

Aloni also hopes that group classes will give patients a way to stave off loneliness and isolation by providing social connections with others in a nonmedical setting.

Ellen Matsumoto, who heads an 11-year-old art program at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, said patients she watches "build relationships in the classes and become like an ohana."

She said many of her rehabilitation patients, like cancer patients, are struggling with "incredible loss of control in their lives, and art is like chicken soup for the soul."

Bell cited some studies that suggest that women, in particular, deal with trauma like cancer by making connections with others.

Bell said art classes could help because "women need to tend and befriend one another if they go through some very stressful event. Their way of regaining control is often by befriending and supporting others."

The teachers whom Aloni has recruited share her belief that art awakens and nurtures the healing powers of the mind.

Another teacher, Nan Holmes of Playworks, an open studio for adults and children in Honolulu, fought breast cancer four years ago and painted every night after her radiation treatments "to heal myself and give me a sense of control when I felt vulnerable and that I had no control over anything."

She said whether someone is working through cancer, depression or a major life challenge, "you have to find that strong inner source, and whether you call it a higher power, or God, or whatever phrase you give it, art can open up the channel to it."

Loren Lasher, a psychologist who taught Black to juggle, said art or "juggling is a metaphor for changing your mind-set. People don't think they can change, but it's their mind-set that holds them back.

"A cancer patient can't just sit and lament at how bad the situation is. They need to take some action. They need to mentally and physically overcome their inability to move. Juggling or any art can help start that process."

Lasher, president of Kaneohe-based Potential Development Unlimited, which specializes in human resources training, said that learning a new skill gives patients "an insight or a sense of accomplishment that keeps building."

Recalling his juggling lesson with Black, Lasher said "he came into my office with his head down, shuffling, obviously depressed." But as Black conquered the art of juggling, he lifted his head, smiled and even laughed.

"He had so much renewed enthusiasm with a minor achievement. And sometimes, little breakthroughs put people back on track."

While Aloni has found a ring of dedicated teachers ready to volunteer, the program has been short on students. Hands on Healing brochures and class calendars have been distributed to clinics where cancer patients are treated. However, Aloni and the teachers acknowledge that while they are tracking down the right audience, they are reaching them at the wrong time because they are occupied with their treatment.

Lasher suggests caregivers can take part in the classes as a way to get patients involved and perhaps give them a new shared interest away from cancer.

Aloni also acknowledges that from day to day, cancer patients face uncertainty about many things, including their own energy level.

"Even when I was exhausted and flat on my back, I could paint a flowerpot or string some Christmas bells with a bow, and it took me away from being sick and powerless," said Aloni. "It doesn't matter what you do; it matters that you do it."

Asked to elaborate, Aloni said: "Art is like exercise. You don't always want to do it, but when you do, you feel better."

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