How Music Can Help You Cope During Cancer: An Expert Perspective

October 5, 2021
Tara Rajendran, MBBS, MFA

Tara Rajendran, MBBS, MFA, is a physician, instrumentalist, and TEDx speaker. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree in Saraswati veena, the national instrument of India. Dr. Rajendran is currently pursuing a PhD in classical Indian music at Annamalai University in India. She is the founder of Oncology and Strings, an advocacy lecture-concert program advocating for the importance of incorporating music into palliative oncology care. You can follow Dr. Rajendran on Twitter.

One of my earliest memories was being wide-eyed at how the music wafting out of a massive red radio could mitigate the pain, anxiety, and isolation of my grandma, who was bedridden with leukemia. Observing my interest in music, my uncle enrolled me in classical Indian music lessons, and for the next 15 years, I learned the principles of melody and rhythm.

Today, music is the creative outlet that I often embrace for self-expression in times of burnout and anxiety. Finding refuge in art helped me foster emotional resilience and tenacity, traits that have been helpful throughout my work in cancer care.

Witnessing the power of music in cancer care

My interest in oncology was piqued during my second year of medical school and was bolstered during my final year as a hematology/oncology visiting international clerk at Harvard Medical School, Stanford Cancer Center, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. I met people with cancer who had varying degrees of emotional, physical, and social suffering. My heart sank, time and again, watching people with cancer cry helplessly in examination rooms. I saw how the challenges faced by people with cancer can be complex and multidimensional. At this point, my mentor wisely suggested that I explore the intersection of music and oncology.

In this process, I learned that professional and credible integrative medicine interventions—including music therapy, which is simple, inexpensive, noninvasive, nontoxic, and does not require medication—are unavailable to a large fraction of people with cancer across the world. This led me to launch an advocacy series for raising awareness among medical communities of the need to implement music-based interventions in cancer care.

As part of my advocacy efforts, earlier this year, I gave a virtual lecture and Saraswati veena concert for a palliative care program. At the end of the session, a cancer survivor came up to me and spoke to me with a beaming smile. 

"Let me tell you, Tara,” they said. “I was anxious and had a panic attack earlier today at my follow-up visit. I returned home from the doctor's office and then came to this event. I was listening to your music, and it reduced 70% of my anxiety. It was so soothing. Thank you!”

I have been working on my advocacy program over the past 2 years, and remarks from people with cancer and their caregivers on how my music has positively impacted their lives continue to make my journey meaningful. People with cancer often have different emotional, mental, physical, and social needs throughout their cancer experience. But I have witnessed how a simple melody can go a long way in improving their quality of life.

Music played by Dr. Tara Rajendran on the Saraswati veena

The benefits of music for people with cancer

There is growing evidence on the impact of musical interventions in addressing stress, improving memory, enhancing communication and self-expression, and promoting physical rehabilitation for people with cancer. For example, a 2015 study among women undergoing breast surgery for cancer diagnosis and treatment found that music had been a safe and effective intervention that could help manage anxiety before the operation. Meanwhile, for people with cancer undergoing a type of stem cell/bone marrow transplant called an autologous transplant, a 2017 study found that music therapy may help them manage pain, and a 2003 study found that it may also help improve their mood. In another 2017 study, music therapy significantly lowered anxiety and distress in people with cancer during a simulation of radiation therapy. Finally, research suggests that musical interventions may be an option for relieving cancer-related fatigue in people with cancer who are undergoing or have already completed treatment.

In addition, our understanding of music's impact on our bodies and minds is ever-expanding. Researchers report that music helps modulate our heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure. Soothing music may also lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to 2018 research.

While musical interventions cannot be used as a stand-alone treatment for people with cancer, as a type of complementary therapy, they may have beneficial effects on cancer-related symptoms.

How people with cancer can get started with music therapy

If you are interested in professional music therapy services, contact your cancer care team. They can help you learn more about the services available to you. Alternatively, the American Music Therapy Association's (AMTA) official website provides an online directory of board-certified music therapists where you can find the services you are looking for based on your personal preferences, goals, and location.

There are also many ways you can receive some of the benefits of music therapy right at home, particularly if you live in a country or community where professional music therapy services may not be available. To start, I would recommend creating a playlist with songs that you connect to the most and using it to revisit happy memories. Listen to this playlist either passively, such as playing as background music during your day, or actively, when you dedicate specific time to focus on the music and your feelings. You can also explore new music from digital platforms and add more tracks to your playlist over time.

If you have learned how to play a musical instrument, I would recommend playing it frequently, so long as you find the process cathartic. Even small adjustments to engage more with the music can prove beneficial, like singing out loud, humming the lyrics, clapping your hands, tapping your feet, or doing little dance movements with the music. You can start small; try playing music for 15 to 20 minutes 3 times a week. Feel free to adjust the frequency and duration of pursuing your own creative expression as it adds meaning and joy to your days. Remember that the happiness you find in the process is more important than the outcome of your artistic expression.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.

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