Composing a New Normal

Composing a New Normal

Exploring Music Therapy during Cancer Care

by Emily Caudill, MT-BC, with Debra Burns, PhD, MT-BC

My relationship to music is a major part of my identity. I started playing violin when I was eight years old, and, as I could, I would pick up new instruments to learn. In the face of adversity as an adolescent, music became my voice. I was a teenager when my father died suddenly, and though I didn’t have the words to describe the sense of loss I was experiencing, I expressed my grief by playing the piano for hours at a time. Songwriting was another outlet that allowed me to express my feelings and work through common teenage issues. 

Music was a great support to me through my personal journey. When I entered college, I decided that I wanted to be part of facilitating those same experiences for others. So, I chose to study music therapy. 

The culmination of music therapy training is a 900-hour clinical internship. While I was completing my internship, working with children who had developmental delays, I ended up in the emergency room for continuing pain from what I thought was a bicycle accident about a month before. By the end of the week, I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer, had surgery, and started chemo. When the cancer later recurred, I received a stem cell transplant. 

Music therapists use techniques like songwriting and instrument playing to help people express their reactions to the illness and treatment.

Significant complications from treatment caused debilitating side effects, decreased my stamina, and affected my ability to play music. The specific chemo regimen I received also caused high frequency hearing loss and tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ear). In other words, cancer treatment severely altered my relationship with music and shook my sense of identity. 

Many cancer survivors experience similar disruptions during cancer treatment. That’s where music therapy comes in. 

Music therapy can help create an environment of normalcy during the cancer experience. Music therapists use techniques like songwriting and instrument playing to help people express their reactions to the illness and treatment. 

Music therapists are trained professionals who understand how to integrate music into cancer care in a way that improves an individual’s experiences by providing opportunities for self-expression, decreasing unpleasant side effects, and boosting quality of life. For example, I worked with a 25-year-old woman diagnosed with leukemia who became paralyzed when a tumor appeared on her spine. She withdrew from interactions with members of her treatment team, and she was adamant that she did not want to go outside. During our music therapy songwriting process, she wrote her own verse to a popular song. Through the practice of songwriting, she used the music as a buffer for the words she had difficulty speaking – gaining insight, clarifying feelings.


My own personal recovery included many hours of regaining my strength and learning how to appreciate the new ways in which I experience sound and music. I was fitted for hearing aids that filled in some of the sounds I could no longer hear, like songbirds and running water. I learned how to tune my violin by feeling the vibration of the instrument through my jawbone and teeth. Earlier this year, I made the decision to return to the cancer center, this time as a music therapist. 

A few years ago, I was the person sitting in that hospital bed for days at a time. Now I have an opportunity to blend my personal experience with cancer into a patient-centered philosophy of music therapy to help other cancer survivors find their own voices.

Emily Caudill (left) is a cancer survivor and board-certified music therapist at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis, IN. 

Dr. Debra Burns (right) is a music therapy professor and chair of the Department of Music and Arts Technology in the School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. 

For more information on music therapy, and to find a music therapist in your area, visit the American Music Therapy Association website at or the Certification Board for Music Therapists website at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.