Center News

Cancer survivors turn to art to boost health

Fred Hutch’s Dr. Bonnie McGregor teams with Seattle artist Catherine Mayer to explore the health effects of artistic expression

March 21, 2014

Photos by Bo Jungmayer

Let Art Unleash Great Happiness (L.A.U.G.H.) participants pose with the finished mural.
Left to right: Joanne Munson, Sue Campbell, Teresa Perry, Dr. Bonnie McGregor, Catherine Mayer, Rosanne Gidanella, Deborah Binder.  (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Artist Catherine Mayer explains how participants will be mixing music, movement, paint — and a variety of hats — to create their masterpiece. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

The session starts with Fred Hutch’s Dr. Bonnie McGregor (far right) leading a quick spot of guided relaxation focusing on breath and healing light. Joanne Munson (left) Rosanne Gidanella (middle) and Teresa Perry (right). (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

After their deep breathing, participants take on new personae, drawing on a wide array of props. Sue Campbell gets into character with goofy glasses and an eye-catching hat. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

The process is a little bit like the old playground game of statues, set to music and preserved in paint. Two spotlights flooding the mural allow participants to trace each other’s shadows when they freeze in place.  (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Here, Joanne Munson traces Deborah Binder upside down to capture her snazzy high heels. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Teresa Perry’s jester hat will be captured on the wall behind her. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Rosanne Gidanella poses in full regalia. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

When it’s time to paint, participants each grab a tray of primary colors, choose a brush, and unleash their imaginations. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Rosanne Gidanella poses with her artistic interpretation. Participating produces a “happy flow,” she explained. Gidanella, who’s participated in patient advocacy at Fred Hutch and its treatment arm, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, is eager to see similar programs aimed at improving cancer patients’ quality of life implemented “right away” during treatment. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Painting to the rhythm of the music. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Catherine Mayer watches the mural unfold. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

Dr. Bonnie McGregor: scientist, painter. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)

The completed mural. (Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch)


It’s no surprise that grooving to music and splashing paint on canvas can be mood-boosting, but can it also boost your health? Seattle artist Catherine Mayer believes in art’s healing powers, and she’s collaborating with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center behavioral psychologist Dr. Bonnie McGregor to examine the health effects of art immersion on cancer survivors.

The partnership officially kicked off Wednesday when five cancer survivors (and this reporter) convened for an afternoon of music, mural painting and silly hats. It was a chance for McGregor to see Mayer’s method, dubbed L.A.U.G.H. (Let Art Unleash Great Happiness), up close — a crucial first step in developing a research protocol to rigorously test the program’s health benefits. L.A.U.G.H. workshops, put on by The Catherine Mayer Foundation, bring Mayer’s special multisensory experience of movement, music and visual arts to everyone from children to nursing home residents. “I know what I see when I watch people participate,” Mayer said. “I see them relax, I see their facial expressions, laughter — now we want to test this medically.”

McGregor, an assistant member of the Fred Hutch Public Health Sciences Division, agrees that L.A.U.G.H. workshops have great potential, particularly in helping cancer patients leave their cares behind and become more centered and present. Her own work has focused on the impact of stress in cancer patients, demonstrating that anxiety can negatively influence immune function in these vulnerable individuals. She’s developed a 10-week stress management seminar for breast and ovarian cancer patients and survivors — and recruited the first few volunteers for L.A.U.G.H. from this pool of women.

Gaining joy by losing oneself in art and movement
After a recent series of McGregor’s stress management sessions ended, the group wished to continue meeting — and Mayer’s art immersion seemed like just the ticket. “It sounded like a great opportunity to try something different and focus on the cheerful instead of just talking about cancer,” said participant Teresa Perry. L.A.U.G.H.’s goals — gaining joy by losing oneself in art and movement — tie in perfectly with McGregor’s interest in mindfulness, which she’s beginning to incorporate more into her stress-management guidelines.

Image: Catherine Mayer

Catherine Mayer

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch

Mayer, a New Orleans native, is no stranger to mixing music and paint. Her artistic voice was honed by interpreting the work of jazz musician friends. Her murals are infused with a sense of movement and whimsy, often depicting people mingling in collective enjoyment of community. Her off-kilter and enthusiastic sensibility is evident in one of her most eye-catching installations, the Giant Red Popsicle sculpture in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.

Mayer has also developed Ambient Art, which uses a flat screen or projection that lets the viewer see the art come to life, complete with background noises like gentle conversation and chirping birds that draw viewers into her gently moving pieces. She became more interested in the specific health effects of art when she was commissioned to create Ambient Art for medical settings. Viewers find Ambient Art a calming distraction in medical waiting rooms, Mayer said.

A playful experience to remember — and repeat
The experience she created for McGregor’s group combined a little music to loosen everyone up, a wide array of costume pieces to help participants express their inner artists, a modified game of “statues” in which they traced their mid-motion silhouettes on a paper backdrop, and splashes of acrylic paint to bring those outlines to life. McGregor’s recruits were smitten.

“I would absolutely do this every month,” said Deborah Binder, who’s worked as an art historian in various museums.

“As adults we don’t get to play enough,” said Joanne Munson, who works in special education. “This is a good chance to focus on life. Cancer is a side effect; it’s not what life is about.”

McGregor managed to wear two hats over the course of the afternoon: participant and scientist. “I’m watching myself to see how I’m responding, and watching others to see how they interact with [the experience].” She noted feeling a “cognitive expansion” in herself, a sensation of being more centered and present, which helped keep her calm during an on-camera interview recorded at the event and scheduled to air on KING-TV’s “Evening Magazine” next Wednesday, March 26.

McGregor also had her workshop participants fill out quick surveys — mood thermometers, she calls them — before and after the session to gauge how the experience affected them. Though McGregor’s expertise is in cancer, she and Mayer hope to bring this art immersion, and its potential healing benefits, to many more in need.

“Art can heal our minds, and healing our minds heals our bodies,” McGregor said.

Sabrina Richards is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at srichar2@fredhutch.org.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.