Music’s Balm

Publication:  InTouch Magazine, Volume 3, 1

Author: Barbara Boughton



For Kathy Winter, chemotherapy treatments at Cleveland-Ireland Cancer Center were an anxiety-filled ordeal. “I was so desperate, and so frightened of chemotherapy that I felt like bolting out of the treatment room,” she says. Each time the nurses probed her veins, trying to insert an IV, Winter’s panic rose. But then she discovered the soothing power of music.

Two months into Winter’s cancer treatment, she decided to take part in the hospital’s music therapy program. At Winter’s next chemotherapy session, music therapist Julie Dolan arrived with a portable keyboard. In the waiting room, Dolan played the soft strains of Claire de Lune, one of Winter’s favorite songs. Later, Dolan played the piece again as a nurse inserted an IV in Winter’s arm.

What Studies and Experience Show

Music can calm a patient’s heartbeat, lower his or her blood pressure, and decrease the need for pain killers. In a 1998 study at Yale University, 78 patients who listened to music during urology surgery needed fewer pain-killing drugs than a group that did not listen to music. Outfitted with drug pumps they could operate themselves, the patients who listened to music used the pumps less often. The study was published in the journal Anesthesiology.

Music therapy can significantly decrease the anxiety and nausea associated with chemotherapy. “During chemotherapy, music distracts patients and relaxes them. It can also help reduce nausea,” says Lucanne Magill, program manager of music therapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “The patients often drift off to sleep.”

For some bone marrow transplant patients, the treatment resulted in better overall health. After just two to 10 sessions of music therapy, six patients in a small 1996 study reported increased psychological well-being, better overall physical health, and increased endurance.

Eventually Winter began singing songs regularly with Dolan and other music therapists during her treatments. She took comfort from the inspiring tunes that always filled her treatment room—songs like On Eagle’s Wings and Friends. “Using music therapy distracted me from my own panic,” says Winter, a research assistant who lives near Cleveland. “It helped me relax and focus so I could get through my treatment with less pain.”

How Can Music Therapy Have Such a Potent and Positive Effect on a Cancer Patient?

Neurologist Mark Tramo, MD, of Harvard Medical School explains it with the “gating theory” of pain. “The brain’s sensory channels can only respond to a certain amount of stimuli at any one time,” says Dr. Tramo. “If you have pain, the channels are completely consumed with that unpleasant information. But you have channels for accessing pleasant information too. Music is associated with joyful experiences—weddings, baseball games, school dances. When a person in pain hears a song, the brain’s attention is diverted to the music. The brain can’t attend as well to the pain, and thus it seems to decrease.”

Dr. Tramo has devoted his career to research on science and music. (He studied music and drama while a pre-med student at Yale, has played the guitar since age six, and at age nine sang in a rock band at the 1965 World’s Fair.) When music breaks the cycle of pain, he says, it can help patients “from being consumed by anxiety and fear.”

Kay Roskam, music therapy director at Chapman University in Los Angeles and president of the American Music Therapy Association, points out that the treatment also helps patients “come to grips with having a disease like cancer. It keeps people in touch with the world.”

Since the days of Hippocrates, music has been used to heal illness. Ancient Greeks prayed and sang to Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing, to drive away disease. Once dismissed as ineffective “feel good” treatment, music therapy lately has taken root in hospitals around the country. Currently, 4,000 licensed music therapists practice in the United States, and the number is growing.

Many music therapists serve on the staffs of cancer hospitals. They are educated in music, composing, the history and theory of music, as well as psychology, anatomy, and physiology. Most are required to play several instruments proficiently, sing, and be able to improvise on different instruments. Generally, a music therapist has at least a bachelor’s, if not an advanced degree, and has passed a comprehensive exam from the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Where Else Will You Find Music Therapists?

These days they work not only in hospitals, but also in hospices, schools, and clinics. Many also see clients in private one-on-one sessions, which can cost anywhere from $65 to $90 an hour. (In some cases, insurers now reimburse for the treatments.) Aside from playing instruments and singing, music therapists often help patients compose and record their own songs. Patients can take these recordings home and play them to relax or brighten their mood.

Music therapy often benefits the families of those diagnosed with cancer too. Deforia Lane, PhD, a researcher at the Cleveland-Ireland Cancer Center, recalls the story of a family in which a young father had been diagnosed with an advanced cancer. His children—aged four, six, and eight—were so distressed by their father’s illness they would erupt in tears each time they visited his hospital room. Then Dr. Lane brought drums and an omnichord—a kind of harp—to the patient’s room and invited all three children to play the instruments and sing. For the first time, they seemed attentive and happy.

Dr. Lane then invited the children to go with her to a nearby lounge and compose an original song about their father, My Favorite Things About Dad. As the children worked, the mother and father spent some precious private time together. Later, the children serenaded their father with the song and recorded it. “It was very meaningful for them,” says Dr. Lane. “Writing the song relieved their distress and it was something they could treasure after their father’s death.”

Cancer patients and their families don’t always need to work with a therapist to benefit from music’s balm. Often, simply listening to familiar, beloved songs can relax the body and lift the spirits. “Music is a part of most of our lives,” says Barbara Reuer, PhD, past president of the American Music Therapy Association and a music therapist in San Diego. “You don’t always have to think of it as a clinical treatment.”

That’s what Kevin Sharp discovered at age 18 when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. By the time doctors found his cancer, the disease had already spread to his lungs. “They told me to prepare myself to die,” says Sharp, now 29 and a professional country musician. The next two years would take Sharp to the edge of death many times as his illness progressed and he was treated with experimental drugs. But Sharp held on emotionally through music. On nights he couldn’t sleep, he listened to favorite recordings. One particular song gave him hope every time he heard it through his headphones—Please Don’t Be Scared, by Barry Manilow.

Sharp eventually recovered from his cancer, and now is happily married with a busy career in music. He often visits patients to sing his own compositions and, he says, to help them make it through the hard times in the hospital. “I’m a firm believer that music saves all our lives at one time or another.”   [ end ]



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