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A study suggests that listening to music is a simple way for cancer patients and their families to help manage stress. (iStockphoto.com)

Music's Soothing Notes Can Help Cancer Patients Chill Out

by Nancy Shute
Aug 10, 2011

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Music therapy for cancer sounds like the ultimate in New Age woo-woo. But a respected medical journal now says that listening music can indeed help relieve the suffering caused by cancer and cancer treatments.

The study, published by the Cochrane Collaboration, looked at 30 clinical trials of music therapy, both those led by trained music therapists and ones where patients listened to recorded music on their own. Both methods were found to reduce anxiety and pain, and to improve mood and quality of life for cancer patients.

Music may also improve heart rate, breathing and blood pressure in cancer patients, the review says. But the effects were slight, and the potential bias in the trials was high, so don't presume that Kanye or The Rolling Stones are a panacea. There also weren't enough trials, or enough patients, to tell if having a trained music therapist was better than just listening to music.

But aside from those caveats, the report suggests that listening to music is a simple way for cancer patients and their families to help manage a stressful, often frightening experience.

"So many diagnoses of cancer, as well as the treatment, come with so much psychological stress," Joke Bradt, an associate professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told Shots. She is lead author on the study.

"Just experiencing the real beauty of music can give people a sense of hope," Bradt added. She's a music therapist herself, specializing in pain management. "It's like putting a blanket around somebody, but it's an auditory blanket."

Patients can DYI the music therapy, she says, but many hospitals have music therapists on staff. Costs vary, and insurance doesn't always pay for it. But she says music therapists can often help patients get the treatment covered by insurers. The American Music Therapy Association also connects people to music therapists around the country.

Cancer is far from the only disease for which music has been used as medication. As NPR's Weekend Edition has reported, a Vietnam veteran uses the soothing sounds of the guitar to help heal the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic, have employed harpists to help patients heal.

Cancer patients, though, don't have to fear being trapped in the chemo unit listening to Sibelius. "A lot of people have the misconception that classical music needs to be used to soothe people," Bradt says. "It's so not true!" She works with patients to pick music that they love. So bring on the Decemberists, the Flaming Lips, or Justin Townes Earle.

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