How art therapy is helping children with cancer cope at the Kenyatta National Hospital

Children at the Craft for Cure art therapy session at the KNH

Screams and shouts of joy greeted us when we got to level 3 at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), as the children came to the space serving as the classroom for the art therapy session of the day.

Little Alex led the pack of excited angels, as they called the volunteers to excitedly tell them about their week and ask them about theirs.

As I took in the scene, my eyes caught the slower children, struggling to get to the classroom (actually, you only spread Swahili mats and voila! Class is on!) They seemed to be in pain and would look forlornly as the rest jumped around; but within a short time, they would join in the fun despite the pain and effects of heavy medication.

The children on Level 3, level 1e and level 9 at KNH suffer from various types of paediatric cancers including lymphoma (51.3%), leukaemia (21.3%), nephroblastoma (8.5%) and rhabdomyosarcoma (5.2%).

According to statistics, from the Faraja Cancer Trust, just 1 in 10 children survive cancer in Kenya compared to 7 in 10 in developed countries.

Since KNH is a referral hospital, the children come from far and wide for treatment that will see them stay in the hospital for months on end. This can get really boring and miserable if they do not have anything to do. This is where the Crafts for Cure sessions come in.

Run by Faraja Cancer Trust, the program takes place every Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon. With something new to work on every day, the children get to colour according to different themes and to match pictures, identify words in crossword puzzles, engage in storytelling, singing and dancing.

“We love crafts days, which we did not have at the hospital at home,” said Caleb Maleto from Kajiado. “I really miss school and whenever we have crafts day I feel like I am in school.”

Art therapy is very useful to kids suffering from cancer. It is used to demystify complicated terms such as chemotherapy and deal with the different side effects arising from cancer treatment.

Such therapy is based on the idea that creativity can heal the patients by helping them express hidden emotions thus reduce stress, fear, and anxiety, and provide a sense of freedom. It is a particularly useful diagnostic tool for children who have trouble talking about painful events or feelings.

Experts believe that children can express negative emotions more easily through drawings and the use of colour rather than through words used in conventional therapy. Art therapy serves two purposes: it allows therapists to assess the patient’s emotional state and assists them in healing through creative processes and expression.

Around 300 children attend the Craft for Cure sessions that target in-patients every Wednesday at 10 a.m and Friday from 1:30-3 p.m.

The volunteers are usually met by parents who are eager to see their children have some fun. The new parents, usually anxious about their kids,  ask where the children are going and once in class, follow the proceedings with hawk eyes.

Slowly, their faces light up as they watch their children transform from their shy and withdrawn nature to happy kids interacting with each other and making fast friends with the volunteers. They wish their children could have the sessions every day to help them keep up with school work and also to keep their minds from thinking about the home, friends and family they left many months ago.

Need for Volunteers

As we celebrate the gains of art therapy for cancer patients, it is important to note that there is always a need for extra hands to help with the children. The volunteers are either college students or individuals who take time off their everyday jobs to work with the children. However, over time, volunteers move to other things while others find it too difficult to keep on after losing a child they had grown to love.

Annually on February 15, we celebrate the International Childhood Cancer Day, a day set aside to raise awareness about childhood cancer and to express support for children and adolescents with cancer, the survivors and their families. The day also promotes increased appreciation and deeper understanding of issues and challenges relevant to childhood cancer and impacting on children/adolescents with cancer, the survivors, their families and the society as a whole.

It also spotlights the need for more equitable and better access to treatment and care for all children with cancer, everywhere. On this day, we celebrate the gains made in helping to mitigate the effects of childhood cancer and the various therapies used to help victims and survivors as well.


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