When people are diagnosed with cancer, first thoughts usually turn to prognosis, treatment options, and how they and their families are going to cope with this new and unexpected reality. But as we know, serious illnesses such as cancer touch so much more than the parts of the body directly affected. Living with and receiving treatment for cancer affects patients physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially.
Aside from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and personalized medicines, many patients need more to ensure they have a good, or decent, quality of life. This is where complementary therapies may help them cope with their disease and all that accompanies it.
Music is one such complementary therapy. We all know that music can change how we feel – it can pump us up or it can calm us down. It can bring back long-forgotten memories, and it can join people together. Music can signal celebration or sorrow. The power of music can even affect us physically and through this all, the field of music therapy was born. Like many complementary and alternative therapies though, there has been little documentation about its effectiveness among people who are ill.
In August 2016, the Cochrane Library published a systemic review providing evidence that music therapy does play a role in helping patients with cancer by easing anxiety, pain, and fatigue, as well as improving their quality of life.1 It was an update from a previous review published in 2011.
Researchers from Drexel University, Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, searched for trials involving music therapy and music medicine interventions. Music therapy is personalized therapy provided by a trained music therapist. A music medicine intervention involves doctors or nurses providing patients recorded music that they can listen to when and if they want. The researchers found 23 trials that they labeled as music therapy trials and 29 as music medicine trials, altogether including a total of 3,731 participants.
The results showed that when people with cancer were provided with music therapy (involves interactive music making with a music therapist) or music interventions (listening to prerecorded music without the presence of a therapist), there was a moderate-to-strong reduction in anxiety and depression, and a small-to-moderate beneficial effect on fatigue. The results also showed that music helped reduce heart and respiratory rates in some patients, as well as blood pressure, and seven studies showed that music helped reduce reported pain levels.
“The results of single studies suggest that music listening may reduce the need for anesthetics and analgesics as well as decrease recovery time and duration of hospitalization, but more research is needed for these outcomes,” said Joke Bradt, PhD, associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, in a news release.2
Patients who were provided with music therapy also appeared to have a better quality of life, although this didn’t seem to be the case for patients who were given music medicine interventions.
The American Music Therapy Association has on its website several articles, studies, and podcasts about cancer and music.3 The underlying message of the Cochrane review and the many published articles related to music therapy is that if a patient would like to listen to music, it can be beneficial and improve quality of life. Music is portable and play lists can be easily personalized to suit a person’s tastes and moods. Music during treatment or when times are particularly anxiety-provoking may help patients get through a very stressful time in their lives.
- Bradt J, Dileo C, Magill L, Teague A. Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in cancer patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Aug 15;8:CD006911.
- Otto F. Music Demonstrated to Alleviate Cancer Patients’ Symptoms. Drexel Now. 2016 Aug 17.
- American Music Therapy Association. What is Music Therapy? 2016.