Drama therapy may be a unique approach to help patients with cancer express themselves and improve their emotional well-being. It can also help health care professionals improve their communication skills.
Traditional therapeutic interventions provide patients diagnosed with cancer the tools to cope with their distress and learn to manage changing feelings. Health care professionals support the well-being of the patient and provide techniques to improve coping skills. For some patients, emotional support could be complemented with creative forms of self-expression. Drama therapy is a unique approach that has roots in drama, theater, psychology, and psychotherapy and has been shown to provide many mental health benefits.1
Benefits of Drama Therapy
The introduction of expressive and creative art therapy allows for individuals with cancer to benefit from multiple forms of support. Drama therapy creates opportunity for patients to explore those options. According to the North American Drama Therapy Association, drama therapy is the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals and can be used for patients experiencing transition, loss, social stigma, and isolation.1 Drama therapy helps address anxiety, depression1, and trauma2 in addition to promoting empathy and healthy relationships.2
There are many types of drama therapy that include use of play, projection, role, story, metaphor, empathy, witnessing, performance, and improvisation.1 Through theater and storytelling, patients can explore emotions in a variety of ways. Self-expression can be through body movement, language, or a combination of the 2. In this artform, personal growth and healing are encouraged in a safe and controlled environment.2 Patients are able to share their feelings without judgment or consequence and this, in turn, promotes well-being and self-efficacy.
A diagnosis of cancer can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Drama therapy can help decrease social isolation, improving mental health.
Improv skills and the cancer patient
Improvisational theater, or improv, is a form of drama therapy which includes games or creating dialogue with others without a script. A common principle of improv, called “yes, and…” is based upon 1 performer agreeing and then building upon the story of another.3-5 When using that skill therapeutically, improv would teach communication skills to patients and shows them 1 way to foster connection with others. Patients may be more empowered to discuss their needs to their health care team as a result, building confidence and self-esteem. As patients find their voice, mental health and treatment outcomes can be improved.4,5
Improv may also complement the teaching of mindfulness, allowing patients to be present and in the moment. Learning creative ways to manage and cope with the stress of cancer is essential to improving overall well-being.
Improv Skills and the Health Care Professional
Health care professionals can implement the traditions of drama therapy and improv in their own interactions with patients. The doctor-patient relationship should be rooted in support, respect, and good communication.2 For health care professionals, the “yes, and…” principle of improv will help them better actively listen and acknowledge the patient experience. When patients feel heard, they are more likely to express their preferences, understand their options, and adhere to treatment.4 Lessons learned from improv allows professionals to be perceptive, receptive and in the present moment.5
The use of improv techniques allows the health care professional to establish a rapport that is collaborative and built on trust. By being present, engaged, and developing a positive relationship with patients, health care professionals have the unique opportunity to better address health care disparities. Cultural competency and disparities trainings can be combined with improv practices to better communicate with communities that face inequities in health care.4 Health care disparities exist within vulnerable communities and are impacted by factors such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, and age, to name a few. Health care professionals can recognize these inequities, and address other potential barriers to care. These stronger connections advance outcomes for mental health and treatment for populations impacted by health disparities.4
The benefits of drama therapy, and the lessons learned within, are 2-fold. Patients diagnosed with cancer see improvements in mental health, communication skills and exploration of self. Similarly, through this practice, health care professionals develop their empathy skills and are able to practice dialogue to better support their patients.
Marissa Fors is director of Specialized Programs at CancerCare.