Surviving Cancer With Music by Your Side

Surviving Cancer With Music by Your Side

by Suzanne B. Hanser, EdD, MT-BC

Whether you have cancer, had cancer, or are caring for someone with cancer, that word – cancer – likely enters your mind a lot. Once cancer becomes part of your vocabulary, it may be hard to think about anything else. Taking up so much space in your thoughts, it can all too quickly and easily start to take over your identity. 

As a music therapist, I’ve seen this firsthand while accompanying dozens of people on their journeys through cancer. At my side has always been music, an expansive, expressive outlet that reminds us of the beauty in life. Music has a way of saying things that are difficult to express with words; it can communicate strong emotions, with or without lyrics, and can move you deeply.

So, what if, when you find yourself thinking about your cancer, worrying, or just feeling stuck, you replace the thought of can-cer with can-sing instead. Now, I’m not suggesting that you can just whistle a happy tune and expect to feel better. But I can recommend some ways to tune into your creative capacity to heal, through music. 

• Lose your ear buds. 

Instead of listening to music alone, invite someone in your life to listen to your favorite music with you. The music you love will trigger memories and associations that tell part of your story and reveal the real you. Tell your companion why you like this music and what makes it special. When they do the same, and the music strikes the same chord for both of you, this can strengthen your bond and your resolve. The emotional impact of the music or the meaning of the lyrics will give you plenty to talk about, and you may be surprised to see how much the music brings up. 

Songs for Survival

Take a listen to these songs with themes that cancer survivors might relate to:

• A Change is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke
• Brave, by Sara Bareilles
• Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel
• Climb Ev’ry Mountain, by Rodgers and Hammerstein
• Fix You, by Coldplay
• Here Comes the Sun, by The Beatles 
• Let It Be, by The Beatles
• It’s My Life, by Bon Jovi
• Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by Judy Garland
• What a Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong

Listening to music has been shown to affect your sense of time passing, and it can improve your comfort level. It’s something you can do in the waiting room, during chemotherapy infusions, or any time you need a mood booster. Play a song you love and sing along. Yes, you “can-sing” – whether anyone is listening or not.

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• Resonate with a song. 

Find some music that expresses just what you feel, or would like to feel. Sometimes a sad song says what you wish you could say, and matches your mood like nothing else can. At other times, you may want to remember the songs that composed the soundtrack to the best times of your life. Listening to them can take you back to those great moments. Of course, on some days, you might prefer instrumental music to whisk you away without the need for words to guide you. Seek out songs that you would like to add to the playlist of your life, and listen to them when you are feeling down, lonely, or in pain. 

• Give your music away. 

How can you show that you are grateful to the people in your life – physicians, nurses, therapists, neighbors, friends, family, community – for what they’ve done for you during your illness? How about sending them a playlist of your favorite songs?

So many songs capture the sentiment of gratefulness perfectly: Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”; “You’ve Got a Friend” by James Taylor; and, of course, Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Is there someone in your life who needs to hear this message? Send these songs as a gift. You could even sing them (Yes, you can!) and record them for those people who are caring for you during this difficult time.

Thanks to portable listening devices and electronic musical games and apps, you can take your music with you virtually wherever you go – medical appointments, treatments, diagnostic scans. Remember to ask your healthcare provider if you can have music by your side at your next appointment, and find ways to bring out the musical you. Enjoy listening to your special music, sing your heart out, and give the greatest gift – your specially selected song list.


Dr. Suzanne Hanser

Dr. Suzanne Hanser is a professor and chair emerita of Music Therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, and author of Integrative Health through Music Therapy: Accompanying the Journey from Illness to Wellness. She is also past president of both the World Federation of Music Therapy and the National Association for Music Therapy.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2017.

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