Virtual art lessons help our pediatric cancer patients

Kasey Marsh has always been a creative person. She ran her own professional photography business for over a decade, and has drawn and painted as a hobby throughout her life.

Now, she facilitates art activities with our pediatric and young adult cancer patients in her role as merchandising program supervisor for MD Anderson Children’s Art Project. Some of their art is used to create Children’s Art Project retail products. The net proceeds from the product sales benefit patient programs for children with cancer. She also photographs patients participating in art activities for use in marketing materials and social media.

“Their resilience gives me such perspective and gets me out of bed in the mornings because being a part of their lives is a privilege, and I can’t wait to see what they create,” she says. “They give me purpose beyond measure and are truly a gift to me.”

A sign that she was meant to work at MD Anderson

MD Anderson treated several of Marsh’s family members, including her mother.

In 2012, her mother died in the Palliative Care unit after living for 15 years with stage IV colorectal cancer. Marsh credits her mother’s care team, which included Ara Vaporciyan, M.D., for the extra years she had with her mother.

“Because of them, she was able to see me get married, meet her grandchildren, and live many full, happy years longer than at initial diagnosis by a different provider who gave her 18 months to live,” Marsh says.

When Marsh decided it was time to leave her photography business, she knew she wanted to work somewhere that served others and where she could make a difference for those who need it most. MD Anderson was a natural choice.

“I wanted very much to have the opportunity to give back to the place that had given such gifts of life to me and my family,” she says.

In 2016, Marsh drove to her pre-employment drug screen and badge photo appointment from her home near Galveston. Along the way, she began to have second thoughts.

“I was wondering if I was strong enough to be physically in the same place where I saw my mother die,” she says.

While stopped at a light on our Texas Medical Center Campus, she saw one of the MD Anderson shuttle buses, which at the time was wrapped with Children’s Art Project artwork, including an image of a sock monkey, and little envelopes with wings and hearts falling from a sky. At the bottom of the artwork was the artist’s signed name: Monica.

“That was my mom’s name and my photography business had been called Monkey Tree, and monkeys had become my trademark,” she says. “That was the sign from heaven, the universe or my mom that this was absolutely where I needed to be, and everything was going to be fine!”

Connecting virtually with pediatric cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic

Marsh’s role is similar to that of an artist-in-residence role, providing our patients opportunities for leisurely engagements, positive distractions, self-expression and socialization.

“We all know that cancer treatment is tough,” she says. “Giving them creative outlets and the chance to make art enhances their sense of well-being, gives them some normalcy, and makes it a little easier to cope with each new day.”

Typically, Marsh interacts with patients and families on a daily basis, working alongside the Pediatrics team in the Children’s Cancer Hospital’s outpatient clinic, inpatient floor and Kim’s Place. She’s also worked with Cancer180 to provide virtual art activities for our young adult cancer patients.

Like many people, Marsh has had to adjust her approach to work due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Since mid-March, she’s been working remotely from home.

She hosts weekly WebEx art classes for our pediatric inpatients, as well as one-on-one virtual classes with patients who have expressed interest. She’s created tutorial videos so that when she has a virtual art session, she’s able to screen-share a guided drawing video, and coach the artist along.

Parents of the participating artists mail the completed art to Marsh so she can scan it into a digital archive, and then submit it to our product development committee.

“The arts are powerful in healing, providing a positive distraction and sense of accomplishment at a time when people can feel that their lives are spinning out of control,” she says.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.