Music therapy helps create new normal for cancer patients
I remember the pleasure my mom got from the music played for her while she was in hospice care. A guitarist would come in and play her favorite gospel songs. It gave her such relief at a time when no amount of pain medication could.
After she passed, I wondered if such music therapy would have helped her manage and cope with her cancer during treatment, and not just at the end of her life.
Music therapy is “compassionate and intentional use of music to improve quality of life, and to bring about change,” says Louise Dimiceli-Mitran, an oncology music therapist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. As a cancer survivor herself, she knows well the key role music therapy plays in the healing process for cancer patients.
Board certified music therapists work in much the same way doctors do in that they often specialize with patient populations, says Dimiceli-Mitran, who also works at Lutheran General’s Center for Advanced Care, an outpatient imaging and treatment center. At the Center, she sits with patients before radiation and mostly during chemotherapy. She introduces herself, takes song requests and plays on her acoustic guitar while she sings or guides patients through relaxation or guided imagery experiences. Dimiceli-Mitran also leads the Focus on Wellness and Breast Cancer Support groups at the Center.
The therapy part of music therapy is just as important. The music serves as a tool to help patients cope with difficult situations and bring wellness into their lives.
The effects can be profound. One patient requested “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and cried when Dimiceli-Mitran sang it. The patient didn’t know why she needed to hear that song, but after talking with Dimicelli-Mitran, she remembered. One of her friends had died. The song had played at her friend’s funeral. Two weeks later, here she was getting treatment.
“Music has a way of reaching into someone and touching their emotions in a way that very few things can,” says Dimiceli-Mitran.
Music therapy is “transformational,” adds Soozie Cotter-Schaufele, clinical training supervisor for the hospital’s music therapy program. “Music accesses the well part of a person. It’s science, but it’s so much like magic sometimes.”
The benefits are numerous. Music helps patients reduce stress, pain and anxiety. And when that happens, they become more compliant with their treatment regimen, says Dimiceli-Mitran.
Music therapy even helps families who are trying to cope with a loved one’s illness. “If you can work with a family who’s ill at ease and get them talking about memories or playing instruments with each other, it really loosens the stress that’s there,” she says. “It normalizes the experience for them.”
Dimiceli-Mitran and Cotter-Schaufele have created CDs for patients to take home and help with relaxation. Dimiceli-Mitran’s Consciously Creating Wellness: Light and Nourishment offers relaxing meditation with soothing music and guided imagery.
Listen to a clip: Intro: Ease into relaxed breathing
Cotter-Schaufele’s Music Focused Relaxation: A Harp and Voice Meditation is soothing vocal and harp music designed to promote the body’s natural ability to heal.
Listen to a clip: Welcome to Music
“There’s a new normal after diagnosis, and helping people find that place is important,” says Dimiceli-Mitran. “Music can be an important part of how they live, go to sleep and brighten their mood,” she says.
She’ll often remind cancer patients to wear their headphones and listen to music when they go in for tests. “It’s like having a friend in your ear when you’re going into the CT scan, and it means a calmer, more relaxed patient who is able to cooperate with staff. This can save time and money for all involved.”
Music therapy can be a powerful tool at the end of life, too. “It’s the ability for people’s spirit to grasp onto it and move them from one place to another and to experience the buoyancy of the human spirit,” Cotter-Schaufele says. “Music therapy provides opportunities for healing that transcends our physical selves. Music honors the songs of our souls.”
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