A Day for the Kids: Those in Treatment and their Siblings

Throughout the year Life with Cancer provides day long programs for children being treated for cancer and their siblings–those who are between 5 and 12 years old. This day combines education, art therapy, medical play, discussion and various additional programs from the community. These have included: yoga, music making, musical performances, storytelling, movement, therapeutic dogs and horses, and recreational games and activities. The goal of the day is to bring kids together who have similar experiences–either because they are in treatment or because they are dealing with the illness and treatment of a sibling. At one point, the kids in treatment break into a separate group from their siblings; this allows for the siblings to talk about their experiences without their ill brothers and sisters partaking in the conversation. It is a chance for the siblings to share with peers who are going through similar experiences and understand their perspective. Often these children share similar feelings and ways of coping, and enjoy the chance to relate to each other in a way that other peers might not be able to.

The experiences of the children in treatment are often better understood than that of the siblings. Providing support to the patient is generally–and logically–the primary focus, as treatment is extremely difficult and sometimes traumatizing. Due to the severity of the illness and the challenge of treatment, the primary focus of doctors, therapists and medical teams is inevitably–and necessarily–on that child. However, the  journey that the siblings go through is also incredibly challenging. They often experience a myriad of feelings, along with many changes at home. These children are often impacted by the shifts in the emotional makeup of their families. There are many changes over which they have no control and siblings, in turn, often feel left out, forgotten, jealous and angry about the toll that cancer has taken on their lives. They are also scared and worried about their ill brother or sister. Giving voice to these feelings and this journey seems extremely important, and these days provide an opportunity for these experiences to be expressed in an arena where these feelings are validated and supported by staff and by peers.

As a group, the brothers and sisters of cancer patients are free to share their thoughts and true feelings related to their experiences. Some siblings are especially open and clear about how disenfranchised they feel. Although there may not be a lot that can be done to shift the focus off of their brother or sister in treatment, they often find some relief and satisfaction in being with like-minded children, sharing their feelings, and having them validated. The opportunity to speak in confidence, free of their siblings or other family members, provides an opportunity to speak the truth and name the many feelings they have that may be considered unacceptable or unkind.

"I feel left out, for all the attention is on Natalie."

“I feel left out, for all the attention is on Natalie.”

Siblings hold a significant place in the journey and the puzzle pieces represent their part in their families experiences. These pieces also provide a vehicle through which many of their thoughts and feelings are expressed in an open and supportive environment.

Kid and Sib puzzle-3


Of the many art materials available to our patients, beads are one of our most popular. Often a patient or parent will come in wanting something to help pass the time or to make a gift for a loved one.   Usually, once one person starts beading other patients and parents start to jump in and we often end up with an impromptu beading party!


Creating bracelets for friends

There are so many reasons why people are drawn to this kind of project, but one of the reasons that we encourage it in art therapy is that beading provides patients, siblings and parents a way to connect with each other. It can open the door for them to laugh together, support one another and share their experiences. For some the thrill of searching for just the right bead or helping someone else find it is rewarding and a helpful way to pass the time at the clinic. Others enjoy the ability to create something beautiful for oneself and loved ones.


For other patients beading can provide a means of reflection and sharing information. One patient, when he first starting coming for treatment at our clinic, created a bracelet made up of beads he selected to represent each year of his life. Some beads represented significant experiences and other beads represented things he likes. The creation of the bracelet gave this patient the opportunity to introduce himself to the art therapists and share the parts of his life that he wanted us to know about.

Abstraction, by Kari Kant

Kari Kant front Kari Kant back

A local artist, Kari Kant, will be showing her new abstract paintings in the Rooftop Terrace of the Newseum Building on June 6. She chose Tracy’s Kids as a charitable partner–a portion of her sales will be donated to Tracy’s Kids!

One of Ms. Kant’s motifs is the American Flag, creatively abstracted, so each Tracy’s Kids location is hard at work creatting a group piece of art on the Flag theme to be included in the show. Patients, families and friends of Tracy’s Kids are welcome to attend the Thursday evening event, but please let us know if you plan to attend so we can put your name on the list.

Coloring Pages

One of the most fantastic things about being an art therapist for Tracy’s Kids is seeing the endless number of ways kids express themselves through art materials.  We are surprised on a daily basis – paper towel tubes become flamingos and model magic turn into a glittery galaxy.  With all of the wonderful and enticing art supplies we are so lucky to have, it is very easy to overlook an unsung hero in the art room – coloring pages!

There is so much to be said for a couple of coloring pages and a box of crayons.  Printing images of a new patient’s favorite superhero or animal offer us a great way to begin developing a therapeutic relationship.  Having ready a patient’s favorite pictures following a difficult blood draw can facilitate a transition from tears to coping through coloring.  We can quickly offer a child a comforting and familiar image to make the hospital less of a scary place.  

Being presented with an image can be a lot less intimidating than facing a blank piece of paper.  Coloring within lines (when developmentally appropriate) can be a calming and containing experience when coping with anxiety or pain.  Parents and family members of patients often request mandalas (circle drawings) as a therapeutic way to pass time and gain a sense of calm.  Even we (the art therapists and other staff members) sometimes find ourselves coloring as a great way to regroup after a very busy day.  We’ve found that you are never too old to enjoy coloring!


Junior Monet

 We are working with a company called Junior Monet to make items with the Tracy’s Kids logo or works of art by our kids available for purchase from their website. They have zillions of products-magnets, buttons, key chains, water bottles, aprons, dry erase boards, laptop sleeves, messenger bags–even neckties!

Right now the only image in our Junior Monet gallery is the Tracy’s Kids logo, but we will be inviting kids to create artwork especially for the project, so check back in a week or two to see what is available. We think the kids will get a kick out of seeing their art made into functional objects, and families, staff and friends will enjoy collecting the kids’ art. Click on the Junior Monet logo above and it will take you to a preview page  so you can see  the different products.  And best of all, Tracy’s Kids will receive 30% of every purchase!

How to make a tutu

This past week has been Spirit Week for the nursing staff at Children’s National.  One of our nurses flagged me down in the hallway, excitedly shouting, “you have to come see what we’re doing!”  She then led me into a large conference room that was filled with nurses making tutus.  I’m a little ashamed to admit that in all of my time working as an art therapist at Children’s, I’ve never learned to make a tutu – until now! Making tutus was incredibly easy and I can’t wait to share my new skills with the children; I’m sure they’ll love dancing around clinic in sparkly tutus and the nurses have already promised us the leftover tulle.

 To make a tutu:





Start by measuring a piece of ribbon around your waist.  Be sure to leave enough space at the ends of the ribbon to be able to tie it comfortably.  Then, cut strips of tulle into rectangles about 3 inches wide and 16 inches long.  They don’t all have to be perfectly equal, a little size variation just makes the tutu poofy and fun.  Then, just start tying the tulle onto the ribbon using a simple knot like so:

 pics 134


Continue all the way around ribbon and voila!

pics 135



I recently attended an art therapy workshop where I learned how to Zentangle!

What is Zentangle you ask? It is an easy- to- learn method of drawing beautiful patterns using a fine- tip pen. One of the reasons why Zentangle is so relaxing is that drawing repeating lines and shapes can help the artist enter into “flow”- a timeless, focused feeling of well-being.


I have to admit, however, that at first glance Zentangles appear very complex as they are composed of hundreds of little lines and shapes.  The first time I saw a Zentange I thought, “I can’t make that!”. Many of the patients and their parents who we shared Zentangle with at Georgetown this week had a similar reaction to my own. Fortunately, we have a lot of brave artists who gave Zentangle a try and ended up really enjoying it!

In many ways, Zentangle is much like the obstacles in our lives that we think we can’t get through. For families coming to our clinic, cancer treatment may feel overwhelming and the long road ahead impossible to navigate. However, as with most of life’s challenges, if we break our challenges down into manageable steps we can get through them.

Focusing on getting through one doctor visit, one blood draw and one hospitalization at a time can be a less overwhelming way to approach a long- term medical treatment. Similarly, starting a Zentangle with one line, adding another, then another without thinking about how the entire picture is going to turn out allows for the creation of an intricate work of art.

A lotus inspired Zentagle

To learn more about Zentangle, visit www.zentangle.com


Working with kids keeps me humble. The other day my friend Peter,  an adorable two-year old, was coloring at the art table. He dropped his crayon and it rolled on the floor. As he bent down to get it  he said, “Oh Lord, what is that child doing!”  and broke into peals of laughter.  I laughed too, because I realized he was repeating something I had said to him as we were playing with model magic a few days before. I was making little objects and he was destroying them as fast as I could make them–so I must have said  that line when feigning dismay in our little game. He has a great vocabulary and a wonderful sense of humor–and apparently he quotes me all the time!

It is so much fun to help kids grow up–to interact with them in a way that helps them feel confident and competent and ready to take on the world. It is also a big responsibility. I hope that  sense of fun and engagement will stay with all our kids as they grow and move beyond the medical hardships they face in their early years. My own early experiences with parents, grandparents, teachers  and others who were happy to let me play and explore and to listen to my observations about the world have made me a more confident and imaginative person, and a better art therapist.

Peter and Tracy

Peter and Tracy

  His parents were very happy for me to share his story, so here’s a picture of the two of us.


Me and my grandmother

Me and my grandmother


I have also included a photo of me a long time ago with one of my wonderful grandmothers.

My Life Has Changed Since You Were Diagnosed with Cancer.

Working with children and teens who have a family member with cancer is an important aspect of my work at Inova Life with Cancer. Through individual work and support groups, children in particular have an opportunity to address and better understand the changes they experience as their family member; (often a parent) undergoes a variety of treatments for cancer including chemotherapy, radiation and /or surgery. This can be a confusing, scary, isolating and maddening time. Through the support group children learn about the various treatments for cancer, the equipment used and the subsequent common side effects. They also learn about and explore the feelings they are having. Through creating art and discussion children share what they have experienced and also prepare for what may be coming as their family member’s treatment progresses. They often discuss the many ways life has changed and continues to change during this time frame.

LWC & Clinic Art 4-13 019

Children generally become more open as the group sessions progress often because they are meeting other children who have similar experiences and feelings. There tends to be some relief in learning that theirs is not the only family going through this. One exercise often incorporated into the group is a list of how their lives have changed since their family member’s diagnosis and treatment. The list incorporates home and family, school, friends and neighbors. The children may add to this list throughout the 6 weeks of group or complete it in 1 session. Either way, it reveals a great deal about their experience and provides a very rich opportunity for sharing, expressing and validation. Children see in a very concrete way how many of these experiences are shared by the other kids. It doesn’t change what is happening but hopefully they come away with a deeper understanding of what they are going through and their feelings and reactions. As they become more attuned to how they are feeling they also learn productive ways to cope. Ultimately they have an opportunity to see that they are not alone and support is there when they want it.

LWC & Clinic Art 4-13 024


going through cancer treatment is tough work.  There are lots of needles, shots, procedures, and medicines that make you feel awful. Sometimes only a superhero could make it through a tough day.  The other day we had two superheroes come in To our clinic. Batman and Superman had the chance to meet in the clinic for the first time, get their meds, and not eat the whole day.  Even superheroes need friends to support them.image