Healing power of music therapy for cancer patients
Music therapy shown to reduce cancer treatment symptoms including depression, anxiety, pain and nausea
In a sunlit room in MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center, patients and caregivers gather to express themselves without words. The rhythmic beat of their African drums becomes their individual voices, as they share an experience other than the one that brought each of them there: a cancer diagnosis.
Group drumming is one of several music-therapy interventions offered at MD Anderson. The class gives patients and caregivers a place to escape from the stresses of battling cancer and connect with others going through similar experiences.
“When you’re here, you’re in the moment,” says Jason Leung, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “You’re not thinking about a surgery that may be happening next week.”
Jason’s wife Bonnie also is a patient at MD Anderson – she’s being treated for leukemia. The couple, both accomplished Tai Chi instructors, say that thriving after a cancer diagnosis includes staying active and sharing your experience with others. The group drumming class allows them to do both.
“Many people hide themselves and their illnesses – sharing is important,” says Jason. “I was over here for another appointment when I heard the drumming,” says Nancy Raimondi, a myeloma patient who has been coming to the drumming class since she discovered it in May. “This is the one thing I do when I’m here at MD Anderson that I really feel is for me, for rejuvenating my spirit. Usually I always have a mask on because my immune system is not that good, so you can’t tell, but I’m smiling the whole time.”
“Music can be a powerful way to express feelings, and draw people outside of themselves,” says Sarah Folsom, the music therapist who leads the drumming class. “It offers an escape from stress or a way to connect with others. For cancer patients at MD Anderson, music therapy can be a meaningful part of their treatment plan.”
Music as medicine
“A lot of people ’s perceptions of what music therapy is, is ‘Oh, you’re going to go play music for someone and they’ll feel better,’ and that is not the case,” says Folsom . “We go through a lot of training as music therapists to assess and create a treatment plan.”
Music therapy is more than passively listening to music, she explains. Instead, it’s an interactive, evidence-based therapy tailored to each individual patient. Board-certified music therapists are trained in music’s effects on emotion, movement, behavior and memory, and how to address these areas with targeted musical interventions.
“Within the first two or three minutes of meeting someone, I’m already assessing in my mind where that patient’s needs are,” says Folsom.
Musical activities led by music therapists can reduce a patient’s depression, anxiety, pain, nausea and feelings of social isolation -- all which are potential symptoms of various cancer treatments.
Studies have shown that music therapy can even have a positive impact on immune cells, which are essential in the body’s fight against cancer.
“There's one study that looks at the T-killer cells’ immune system response to a 10-week drumming protocol,” says Folsom, explaining that immune cells actually increased in patients after a course of group drumming classes.
Music can also support healing from neurological issues, Folsom says. The human body has a physiological response to rhythms, which stimulates the brain to track the beats in music. This innate neural response to music can be used in therapy to help neurological patients improve movement and speech.
Touching the soul
In addition to group drumming, Folsom uses other music therapy interventions with her patients, including songwriting sessions, active music making, lyric discussions and guided meditation, which enlists imagery and music for relaxation and distraction from pain.
“I play a progression on my guitar and talk through any number of relaxation or mindfulness techniques like breathing or progressive muscle relaxation,” she explains. “Or I might do a guided imagery where I have patients close their eyes and imagine a special place that is peaceful for them.”
In songwriting sessions, Folsom offers patients emotional relief by helping them chronicle their cancer journey in a song. Some who are near end-of-life find comfort in creating a song to leave as a legacy for their loved ones. The song can be a way to organize the patient’s thoughts and experience into something positive, explains Folsom. At the end of the session, the patient has a product to take away that they created.
“Sometimes my job is just to remind them that music has a place in their lives,” says Folsom, who strives to reconnect patients with songs from their past that elicit feelings of joy and normalcy. “Music does powerful things. It communicates nonverbally and it touches the soul.” At the end of each drumming class, the rhythmic thump of the drums gives way to excited chatter. Patients laugh together, make plans to meet at future classes or exchange stories about how cancer is impacting their lives. For the hour of class, the sunny room in the Integrative Medicine Center becomes a sanctuary of normalcy for the group.
“We come here to learn something new. This is our life, we want to keep going, keep fighting,” said Bonnie Leung as she was leaving a drumming class. “It’s special.”