By Jyothirmai Gubili, MS, Dana Kramer, FNP-BC, and Karen Popkin, LCAT, MT-BC

Music has historically been associated with health and healing in cultures around the world. As a therapeutic intervention in patients with cancer, it is used to address physical and psychological symptoms. The sessions are tailored to meet patients’ individual needs and abilities and can involve listening to, writing, performing, or discussing music and lyrics, guided by a trained therapist. Although music does not affect the disease itself, it produces more immediate effects compared to pharmacologic agents, has a positive impact on mood, and strengthens patients’ ability to cope.

What Is the Evidence for Music Therapy?

Music was shown to have beneficial effects on anxiety, pain, fatigue, and quality of life, with small effects on heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, in a systematic review of 52 clinical trials involving 3,731 patients with cancer. It was also reported to improve coping and social integration and reduce mood disturbance in patients undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, a procedure associated with high levels of distress.

In a study of newly diagnosed patients with breast or head and neck cancer undergoing simulation for radiation therapy, both live and prerecorded music produced significant reductions in distress and anxiety. And data from a retrospective analysis suggested the value of music therapy for reducing breathing problems in patients with cancer who were receiving hospice care.

Pediatric patients can also benefit from music therapy, with studies reporting that active music engagement increased comfort in hospitalized children, reduced pain and anxiety in children undergoing lumbar puncture, and improved coping skills in children undergoing cancer treatments.

Although the mechanisms by which music exerts its effects are not fully known, recent studies suggest that it may influence the neuronal pathways that are associated with functional changes in pain, anxiety, and depression.

Music therapy is a non-invasive, cost-effective and pleasant technique. Accumulating evidence indicates that it helps reduce patient and family anxiety and depression, and alleviate pain. It can be used for patients of any age and in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, cancer centers, or homes. Music therapy is currently offered by 30 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the United States. It is also recommended by the Society of Integrative Oncology to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue and improve quality of life.

An Oncology Nurse’s Perspective

Music therapy has always been an important part of the care of my patients. Its benefits in terms of physical and psychological symptoms are easy to see, and patients appreciate it. Any therapeutic intervention that can make patients’ lives better, without significant potential side effects or burden, is highly valuable to us. Music therapy is truly a form of therapy, and it tends to be one that even the sickest of patients want, accept, and can tolerate on an ongoing basis. Seeing my music therapy colleagues create individualized therapeutic plans alongside other clinical professionals, I wish every patient had access.

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