Soothing Songs: How Music may Improve Quality of Life for Cancer Patients

The tap of a drum. The hum of a lullaby. A chorus of voices raised in joy. Wherever you find people, you find music. Hard-wired into the human brain, music activates a wide variety of neural pathways. It is uniquely able to express emotions and evoke deep memories. Music can affect more than our thoughts and memories. A number of studies have found evidence that music interventions may decrease pain and stress for patients who are critically ill or have had surgery. But can it reduce the pain, stress, and anxiety that comes with cancer treatment? A recent Cochrane review found promising evidence that it can.

The reviewers identified 52 studies of music interventions involving a total of 3,731 cancer patients. Some studies used music as part of a therapeutic process offered by a specially-trained music therapist. In other studies, patients were played pre-recorded music during standard medical care. The studies measured a wide range of physical and psychological outcomes. The reviewers did not find enough evidence to make any conclusions about music’s impact on physical functioning or immune response. But multiple studies showed that music interventions reduced patient anxiety, pain and fatigue. A smaller positive impact was seen on heart rate and blood pressure. No negative effects of music therapy were reported. Given these benefits, the reviewers recommended that music interventions be considered as a treatment strategy to improve quality of life in cancer patients.

But what if your medical team does not offer music interventions? The great thing about this review is that it found that formal music therapy was not necessary. Just listening to recorded music was effective at improving well-being. If you enjoy music, bring your headphones to your treatment sessions. Make music a part of your everyday life. Free online music technology like Spotify make it easy to discover new tunes and re-discover old favorites. Ask friends and family to make you playlists instead of lasagna. Even if you are too sick to read or talk, you may be able to listen to a familiar melody. Whatever way you experience it, music may offer a unique ability to comfort, distract, and improve well-being.

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