Successfully working with children and teens living with cancer and other chronic, serious health issues takes a multi faceted, creative approach. With the students that we serve through our arts education program at The Pablove Foundation, we go even further to customize their experience by considering the student’s region or city, specific partner hospital, community arts partners, and individual family circumstances.

This special population requires flexibility—learning photography in a rigorous out-of-hospital photography program like Pablove Shutterbugs (that has sometimes been compared to a high school level fundamentals course) may seem inconsequential for families who tirelessly care for their children in some of the most challenging life circumstances anyone could ever face. However, research has shown that the arts have the ability to unify and empower, and with cancer patients, the arts can be a critical piece to improving quality of life.

Self-portrait, young girl: Ava G., age 9, New York, NY. Courtesy of The Pablove Foundation, 2017.

Although our programs are grounded in principles and best practices in arts education, I’d like to offer three ideas for working with pediatric oncology youth for community groups and arts education agencies that are interested, but not sure how to start.

Idea #1: It takes more than just having a program to offer: consider the whole child, their circumstances, and yes—even their type of cancer. There are over 15,000 new diagnoses of childhood cancer per year in the United States, with over 300,000 in active care for any number of reasons. There are also multiple types of cancer, meaning that children who participate in your art program will have varying needs including cognitive, physical, and emotional. Organizations can set up processes (such as training for teaching artists) to support those needs.

Idea #2: Take on a trauma informed approach and framework when working with families. When children and teens are diagnosed with cancer, a whole community is affected. Children are often isolated, pulled out of the formal education system due to treatment, feel a loss of control, and families often suffer financial loss especially with medical costs and time taken off of work to help support their child. It’s life-altering. Providing a welcoming, non-judgmental space that invites a sense of emotional safety is key to supporting artistic growth.

Tire swing: Cameron B., age 14, New Orleans, LA. Courtesy of The Pablove Foundation, 2017.

Idea #3: Understand that the strengths of young people and their creative voices are key in any successful community youth development program. Although kids living with cancer are going through a lot, most want to contribute, be part of a community, and feel a sense of normalcy. Of the more than 1,000 students we’ve served, I’ve seen incredible amounts of resilience, creative storytelling, and advocacy for change. Each has had something to say through their art, and every student has taught me to see life from a different perspective.

I’ve just scratched the surface on ideas on working with this inspiring population, and hope to continue the conversation through your comments!