Medical Muse

The Art of Curing Cancer

The director of MD Anderson’s Arts in Medicine program uses painting, sculpture and one giant dragon to provide courage and solace to children battling cancer.

By Lonna Dawson September 29, 2015 Published in the October 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

There is a rebellion rising at Texas Medical Center, an uprising led by small fists gripping markers and watercolor brushes. The young combatants march alongside Okoa, their protective dragon, led by Ian Cion, director of the Arts in Medicine Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital. The battle is against cancer, and Cion is their victor over vexation, their masher of molehills and bonafide banisher of bad times. On the worst days, Cion is the only reason many of them laugh and smile. “To be happy and full of wonder in the face of suffering is a powerful form of rebellion,” says the leader of this children’s brigade. “It requires courage in the face of the unknown.”

For the last five years, the 41-year-old has used art as a tool to give thousands of children courage and solace. The numbers are perhaps best reflected in Okoa the Waverider, MD Anderson’s behemoth paper dragon. The work of more than 1,300 patients and their families, Okoa is a creature of popsicle sticks encased in thousands of hand-drawn paper scales; one has Batman insignia on it, another cheetah skin print, while others have Bible verses and song lyrics. (“Try a little tenderness,” reads one.) Another young patient’s contribution to the project makes it clear that this is a distinctly Houston dragon: Okoa has a single gold tooth.  

The Arts in Medicine Program was the brainchild of Cion and Martha Askins, a pediatric psychologist. The MD Anderson Division of Pediatrics hired Cion after learning of his comparable work at Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin. As Askins puts it in a recent documentary made about the MD Anderson program, “it’s very important to keep children and their families engaged in the process of life.” 

That art therapy can have a positive impact on cancer patients has been consistently reported in the literature, including a 2013 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association which found that programs like AIM—including a longtime, similar initiative at Texas Children’s Hospital—significantly reduce anxiety, depression and pain among such patients. Cion didn’t need a study to tell him that, however. “You don’t have to be a scientist to understand how the arts contribute to patient well-being,” he says. “You simply have to watch people sit and participate in the activities, or look at the artwork, to see how it works.”

Between his gold and gray-flecked beard and stylishly spiked coif, Cion is one of the most recognizable figures in MD Anderson’s hallways, and, it seems, one of the most popular. “What’s up, man?” belts out Carlos Ochoa, a young patient, giving his art teacher a sturdy high-five. The 7-year-old’s smile only broadens when Cion tells him about their next project: constructing eight life-sized, wearable spacesuits. 

The two have been working together since Carlos was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia at the age of 3. Meeting Cion, says Carlos’s mother Cristina Castillo, taught him that there was more to being in the hospital than bad news and needles. Even when Carlos felt his worst after treatment, he would ask to stay at the hospital to work with Cion. “[Cion] was clapping all the time,” Castillo says. “Carlos felt excited [and] I felt happy about that.” Carlos and his family have even more to be happy about now that he is cancer-free and started first grade this year. These days, he goes to the hospital only once a month, for lab tests. 

Not all the stories have happy endings, of course. Some are “heartbreaking and infuriating” for Cion, especially when a child passes away. On those days, he copes with the help of his wife and two sons. “It has been an important lesson for me that survival and peace come in waves, pain and suffering come in waves,” he says. “I try to keep a long-term perspective that allows me to see these waves rise and fall.” 

At the hospital, the patients don’t typically come to Cion. He goes to them, come what may, setting up makeshift studios in reception areas and hospital rooms with the aid of his art cart and digital canvas. Smiles invariably greet his arrival, even if those smiles are sometimes obscured by surgical masks. For the roughly 2,000 pediatric patients Cion works with each year, he is as much a protector as Okoa. He is pure rebel magic, transcending art.

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