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The Sound of Healing

A Look at Music Therapy for Cancer Survivors

by Lisa M. Gallagher, MA, MT-BC

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The treatments for cancer are often long, uncomfortable, tiring, and boring. But they don’t necessarily have to be. There are things that can help you get through it. Music therapy is one of them.

Music therapy is a complementary medicine technique that involves en­gaging in music through the guidance of a supportive board-certified music therapist. A music therapist can guide you in using music during medical pro­cedures, while waiting for appointments, while preparing for surgery, during recovery from cancer treatment, and as a means of coping with the physical and emotional side effects of cancer and its treatment. Music therapy has been shown to lower stress levels, improve sleep, promote relaxation, and decrease pain.

When I was undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer, I struggled with finding the right music to use dur­ing my treatments. I didn’t want silence in the room; I wanted to listen to music that would help me relax and would decrease my anxiety so I could lie still for the entire treatment. As a music therapist, I know that a person’s favor­ite music is usually a great go-to choice. However, I also realized that listening to my favorite songs could poten­tially cause me to start disliking them, as they might then remind me of radiation.

Music therapy has been shown to lower stress levels, improve sleep, promote relaxation, and decrease pain.

Author of Article photo

Lisa Gallagher

After speaking with a fellow music therapist, I decided to use music that I rarely listened to – country. And it worked. I even discovered a song that became the theme song for my cancer journey: “Stand,” by Rascal Flatts. A music therapist can also help you find the right music for your situation.

Engaging in music therapy practices like listening to music, making music, music-led imagery, and songwriting, to name a few, is beneficial in a variety of ways. Music therapy can help you manage side effects (like nausea), lower your anxiety, and ease cancer-related fears. It can also give you something positive to focus on during the treat­ment. Focusing on music sends positive energy to your brain, which can help block pain sensations that may also be trying to reach your brain.

We use music every day to help us relax. Music can help you decompress after a particularly stressful day. Or it can pump you up for an upcoming event, activity, or project. Listening to quiet music at night can help you fall asleep. Moreover, pairing calming music with relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation, can increase relax­ation and improve your ability to fall asleep, and even stay asleep. Music can also be a means of communicating with friends and family. And it can give you the strength, hope, and courage you need to face each day.

Music therapy helped me get through one of the most difficult times of my life. Maybe it can help you as well. Talk with your doctor about integrating music therapy into your treatment plan.

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Lisa Gallagher is a board-certified music therapist and the research program manager for the Arts & Medicine Institute at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH. She is also a breast cancer survivor.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2016.