Music therapy comforts cancer patients


Music therapy can leave a lasting impression on cancer patients of all ages. It helps patients relax and handle their cancer treatment in a way no medication can. As music therapists, a big part of our job is creating individualized music experiences to help patients focus on something positive instead of painful.

Take this example of an adult patient we recently got to know:

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had been getting treatment at UT Southwestern for the past year. Over time, she developed significant relationships with our physicians.

When the time came for her to enter hospice care, we wanted to do something special for her. On her last day of chemotherapy with us, all the doctors and nurses gathered around and broke into a rendition of “My Girl.” Some of us danced a bit, which prompted laughter from our patient. It lightened the mood and was a sweet moment to have everybody together one final time.

Our music therapists have been helping create these kinds of memories with our adult cancer patients since the program was launched in 2013.

What is music therapy?

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as evidence-based, clinical use of music interventions to achieve individualized goals by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music therapists use music to meet the psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs of patients and their families. This can include:

  • Singing to the patient
  • Composing personalized songs
  • Listening to music with patients
  • Interpreting lyrics
  • Improvisation

The goals for each music therapy session depend on what the patient is going through that day. Relaxation is usually one of the desired outcomes, but music therapy is always tailored to the patient’s needs.

Research has shown that music therapy is beneficial for patients in a variety of ways. It can lower patients’ blood pressure, reduce pain, nausea, and anxiety, and encourage self-expression. While helping patients is always the goal, we’ve noticed that music therapy can also benefit the patient’s caregivers and even our own staff members.

What happens during a typical music therapy session?

Music therapy provides our cancer patients with an opportunity to express themselves in a manner that is different from speaking. Our patients don’t have to seek out music therapists – we take a proactive approach and go directly to them.

The sessions often start with a conversation. Using the discussion and observation, we assess the patient’s:

  • Emotional well-being
  • Social functioning
  • Communication abilities
  • Physiological responses
  • Cognitive skills

We try to determine how patients are coping with their diagnosis, how they’re handling that day’s appointment, and what, in general, is on their mind.

Next we ask what kind of music the patient likes. As you can imagine, the answers vary quite a bit – pop, rock, country, religious, blues. One patient who was going through a bone marrow aspiration asked that we sing a Bon Jovi song. Other patients have requested music by Bob Dylan, Celine Dion, and Coldplay, as well as traditional gospel hymns.

We sing with and for patients often. We have guitars, so, when it’s appropriate, we can incorporate those into the session, too. If the patient wants to try songwriting, we can improvise on the spot or use a template to make it an easy process.

Recently we worked with a patient named Tara and her husband. Tara was battling leukemia, and her husband also had gone through cancer within the last five years. We spent several sessions with Tara, singing to her, rewriting songs, and working on relaxation methods.

When she was nearing the end of her chemotherapy treatment, we suggested that the couple write a song for their children. The result was a sweet and personal song about embracing the curveball that life threw their way.

Music Therapy Session

Music therapist Christina Stock singing a song she wrote with Tara for her daughters as she went through cancer treatment.

Music therapy is a valuable resource

The response to our music therapy program has been even better than we envisioned. About 70 percent of the patients we approach agree to a music therapy session.

Our goal from the start was to integrate the music therapy program into what we were already doing at UT Southwestern. Because the sessions are so individualized and can include much more than just singing to a patient, the feedback has been positive.

Lots of people are curious about the woman with a guitar strapped to her back, so that gets a conversation going. Other times patients and their families will hear the music and ask, “What’s happening in that room?”

We also teach patients how to take all these tools home with them. If the steroids they are taking keep them up at night, music is a resource that can help them relax and get some rest.

After people experience music therapy, they are often surprised at the effect it has on them. Our advice: Don’t let misconceptions prevent you from accessing a resource that is so valuable. You don’t have to have any musical experience in order to benefit from music therapy.

If you are a cancer patient at UT Southwestern, just ask your nurse about the music therapy program and one of our music therapists will visit you. Also, music therapy is one of the nine topics we cover in our EMBRACE Survivorship support program.

To learn more about music therapy at UT Southwestern, check out our resource guide or call Dr. Jeffrey Kendall at 214-648-7412.

Jeffrey Kendall, Psy.D., is the clinical leader of the Oncology Support Services Program at UT Southwestern’s Simmons Cancer Center.

Christina Stock is a board-certified music therapist. She has been working with children and adults since 2008.