THE WEBSITE OF THE Hong Kong Cancer Fund lists an extensive range of free services provided by the organisation, including everything from nursing consultations to a 24-hour hotline to peer support programmes. But as well as nursing and counselling, the list also includes something a little less conventional, a section called “complementary therapies”.
Devised as programmes to help cancer patients and their families deal with the stresses of diagnosis and treatment, these complementary therapies include art, dance and music therapy, as well as yoga and meditation classes.
“When I first started the Cancer Fund 28 years ago,” says the organisation’s founder and CEO, Sally Lo, “it was mainly support groups, and our support groups were encouraged to do creative things. We’d do things like decorate hats at Easter, but it was very much ad hoc. I just knew it was a way of empowering our clients to manage their anxiety.
“But it was only 15 years ago when I realised – having been to a conference in the States – that art therapy and the creative arts are everything.” The charity initiated its formal support for art therapy by bringing an exhibition called Art.Rage.Us to Hong Kong in 2000, which showcased art by women suffering from breast cancer.
“With Art.Rage.Us, we wanted to demonstrate to the public how important expressing yourself is,” says Lo. “It was really quite shocking – some of the ways these women were able to express what had actually happened to them. I realised how courageousthey were, so we took on a full-time art therapist.”
Since then, the Cancer Fund’s art-therapy programme has gone from strength to strength. The organisation now offers art therapy to cancer patients of both sexes and has also incorporated it into Rainbow Club, its programme to support children whose parents are undergoing treatment.
“The interesting thing with children is that they don’t feel intimidated,” Lo says. “You show them colours, you show them clay, you show them wire and wood, and they’ll immediately get down to creating something. They don’t find it difficult. But it’s only after several sessions that their true feelings come out on paper.”
Adults, however, sometimes struggle to get into the swing of things. “They’re very different,” says Lo. “Women’s groups are very good at doing all sorts of creative things. But if you ask them to go off piste and just express themselves, they feel slightly intimidated, so they can have as much as two sessions with a group and not put anything on paper – then suddenly it all happens. Suddenly, there’s a turning point and they find that they’re extremely creative.
“Men’s groups are totally different again. But they’re very enthusiastic and so we use different media for the men. We use wood, wire, string, things they can understand – a nail and hammer. And they’re amazing at what they do. They use hands, feet, they get tactile with the whole thing.”
But the art-therapy programme is just one of the complementary therapies that the Cancer Fund offers. “It’s not just art therapy as such, it’s a whole wellness stream,” Lo explains. “We do all sorts of creative arts, yoga, we do many different things. One of them is like meditation – it’s called a mandala. It was new to me when we started doing it. It involves creating artwork, but it’s also a deep meditation and the groups work in silence. This is one of the most popular creative meditation groups we have and a lot of our clients take this away and use it at home.”
Lo has been running the Cancer Fund and working with oncologists and cancer patients for nearly 30 years, yet not even all her knowledge of the disease could prepare her for the news that she received last year. “This time last year my husband and my housekeeper were both diagnosed with cancer and I suddenly found myself on the other side of the fence, I found myself as a user [of cancer fund services]. My initial thought was ‘how can I help?’
“My husband kept a journal – it was incredible because it helped him work out which were the good days and which were the bad days. Music therapy and guided meditation were also very, very helpful.
“It’s all about mind-set really. It’s like a radio: if you’re always listening to the same channel, you have to be quite brave to change the channel and see things from a different perspective. This is what art therapy and the creative arts we provide do. They allow our clients to focus on something totally and utterly new, to shift their mind away from their cancer concern to another area. It’s very, very therapeutic, it’s very healing.”
Hong Kong Cancer Fund provides free information, professional services and complementary therapies so that no one faces cancer alone. Caregivers, family and friends are welcome to join their programmes. Hotline: 3667 3000