Music as Medicine for Cancer Patients

Music isn’t just enjoyable to the ears. Studies have shown music therapy is an effective way to relieve the pain, anxiety and stress of cancer treatments. 

There are 6,750+ board-certified music therapists in the United States today. These therapists specialize in using music-related activities that can help patients relax and recover, while they’re undergoing treatments. Many large cancer centers are now utilizing these services in hopes of reducing patient pain and anxiety—two music therapy benefits backed by extensive research.

How Music Affects Our Brains 

When you look at how music affects our brains, it’s much easier to understand why music is such an effective, safe and enjoyable way to relieve anxiety.

New technology has allowed researchers to observe how music therapy creates changes within our brains. “Brain images and scans show that when we’re engaging in music, even something as simple as listening causes our brains to light up,” says Kimberly Sena Moore, PhD, a Certified Music Therapist at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.

Scans show listening to pleasurable music helps deactivate the amygdala, a brain structure that processes emotional responses. “That’s telling our body, ‘We can calm down now, everything’s OK,’” says Dr. Sena Moore. Music also activates the brain’s pleasure and reward system, which may help counteract pain.

“We know music touches various parts of our brain, including the emotional center that releases our body’s natural opiates. For example, endorphins, enkephalins and serotonin,” adds Deforia Lane, PhD, Director of Art and Music Therapy at University Hospital’s Seidman Cancer Center. “All of those things that are released are triggered by auditory stimulation, and music is prime in that . . . without using any pharmacologic intervention, it is simply using the music as medicine.”

In a study of breast cancer patients co-authored by Dr. Lane, her team noted, “Anxiety often results when an actual event conflicts with what was anticipated, thus activating the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Because it delivers something expected, preferred music may stimulate the relaxation response . . .  Familiar melodies, rhythmic patterns and song lyrics may provide a welcome contrast to distress by delivering the predictable in an unpredictable environment, thus restoring balance to the autonomic nervous system.”

It’s a very scientific way of explaining how our favorite songs help our brains and bodies relax, because they are enjoyable and familiar.

Benefits of Tuning Into Music Therapy

A large body of evidence shows music has the ability to improve mood, pain and anxiety in patients. One of those studies was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. In that study, researchers from University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center showed both live and recorded music provided noteworthy improvements in anxiety.

Lead researcher and music therapist Jaclyn Bradley Palmer released a statement outlining the results. “We discovered anxiety levels dropped significantly from pre-test to post-test in breast cancer patients who heard one preferred song of either live or recorded music before a surgical biopsy.” She also noted, “Preoperative music therapy interventions reduced anxiety significantly more than usual preoperative management by 43 percent and 41 percent, respectively.”

A review of 30 studies that included nearly 1,900 cancer patients also concluded music therapy relieves anxiety, improves mood and decreases pain. Researchers at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions found listening to music in its various forms is more beneficial than listening to nothing at all. In addition to the self-reported benefits by the patients, researchers noted listening to music showed improvements in blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.

However, experts note some benefits of music therapy are impossible to quantify. “So many people said it humanized their cancer experience,” says Leah Oswanski, a Music Therapist and Director of the Jeffrey F. Wacks Music Therapy Program at Morristown Medical Center.

Ms. Oswanski works with cancer patients both before and after they undergo surgical procedures. “It’s so hard to go through treatment,” she says. “There are so many tests and so much information that sometimes the human being can get lost in everything that’s going on. Our patients report that music therapy brings back that human side.”

If you’re interested in including music therapy as a part of your treatment, The Certification Board of Music Therapists is an invaluable resource. The Board is the only national certification provider and maintains a list of therapists who have completed the MT-BC program. You can search for a music therapist by name, certification number or location.