Exhausted and angry after all he’d had to endure, a 7-year-old cancer patient was throwing things in his hospital room and sobbing. When music therapist Michael M. Richardson arrived at the little boy’s room, he brought a drum and a handful of other percussion instruments. “I wanted to give him a way to express his anger and rage by beating as hard as he could and making as much noise as he wanted,” recalls Richardson, a music therapist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas in Houston.
Eventually, the boy calmed down, and doctors were able to continue with his treatment.
A growing number of cancer centers now offer music therapy to help patients deal with the rigors of treatment and the stresses of living with cancer. Although quantifying the effects of music therapy is difficult, evidence suggests it helps in many ways. In a study of 29 cancer patients at the University of Bristol in England, for example, listening to or making music lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosted levels of substances produced by the immune system to fend off disease. Some researchers think that reducing stress may free up the body’s energy to fight cancer.
Music therapy may also relieve pain and distract patients who must undergo uncomfortable or distressing procedures. Therapists sometimes encourage patients to sing or play wind instruments to encourage them to take deep breaths, an important step in speeding recovery after surgery. In his practice, Richardson has found that music therapy helps patients recover from the mental fuzziness and confusion that sometimes occurs during and after chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
“Music is a great way to focus people’s attention, to get them oriented in reality,” he explains.
Music therapy can also help patients with incurable cancer find few moments of relief and joy at the end of life.
“Many of the people we treat here have terminal cancer. We can’t cure them. But for people who know they are going to die, music therapy can be almost magical,” says Richardson. “Music opens up this whole place for people where they can express what they’re feeling.”
Even cancer survivors find that music can ease stress and help heal lives disrupted by the disease. Under Richardson’s direction, a group of former patients at M.D. Anderson have formed a “survivors” choir.
“The aftermath of surgery to remove cancer can be very difficult,” he says. “Recovering can be a tough process. People’s lives are changed. Music can help people find new meaning.”
Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.