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How Music Can Help You Cope

Web Exclusives — June 29, 2015
Sarah Quinlan, BA
Senior Education Technical and Marketing Coordinator, CancerCare

Using music throughout cancer treatment has emerged as an important coping tool. Several studies demonstrate the positive impact of music emotionally, socially, and physically on patients with cancer.

The phrase “music soothes the soul” is especially true when you’re enduring cancer treatments. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments often cause side effects, such as diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, anxiety, and stress. Pairing music with challenging treatments has been shown to be a welcome distraction for patients. Playing your favorite song or sampling a new music genre can transport your mind and create a soothing experience while receiving cancer treatment.

Tailoring the music choice to your personal preference or mood during your treatment may provide a sense of familiarity and control. Creating a music playlist to match your mood during hospital visits also often relieves stress. When coping with a cancer diagnosis, adding music to a treatment regimen or to doctor visits can be the small change that can provide an immense sense of comfort.

Recent Evidence

Studies suggest that participating in musical activities and music therapy programs may be beneficial for patients with cancer. In January 2014, a study published in the American Cancer Society’s journal Cancer included 113 patients (ages 11 to 24) undergoing stem-cell transplants. Patients were randomly divided into 2 groups; one group participated in a therapeutic music video course, in which the patients produced music and music videos, and the second group listened to audiobooks.1

The patients who completed the therapeutic music video course reported significantly better results in coping with their cancer compared with the other group. They also increased their social interaction in family environments 100 days after treatment.1

Certified music therapists use various techniques for including music during cancer treatment, such as listening to music, playing instruments, singing, and writing and producing songs.

A study conducted at Drexel University in 2011 used data from randomized trials of patients with cancer and music, including (1) music medicine, in which recordings are simply played for patients, and (2) music therapy, in which therapists manipulate music to treat and evaluate patients. The researchers looked at 30 studies with a total of 1,891 patients with cancer. They found that music medicine and music therapy reduced patients’ anxiety and pain, as well as improved their mood and quality of life.2

Music Programs

As the use of music throughout cancer treatment has grown, many hospitals and cancer centers have created music programs to help their patients cope with cancer.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s music therapy program, which is offered through the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, has a comprehensive webpage where patients and their loved ones can share their cancer stories. Some of the stories describe how music therapy has helped patients get through their cancer treatment.

One mother recounted how playing the guitar lifted her son’s spirits and improved his mood, saying, “It gave him something to look forward to, and brought meaning to his days in the hospital….Remarkably, I saw a transformation in my son’s spirit. He now felt he had some control over his situation, and seemed more at peace.”3

Many patients with cancer find hope with new developments in oncology, including music therapy programs. Using music throughout cancer treatment and participating in a music therapy progam are positive coping tools.

Music therapy programs provide an important social outlet and a sense of community for patients with cancer, whereas listening to music helps patients deal with cancer on a personal level. As this body of research grows, music continues to be a wonderful resource, and is often considered beneficial throughout the cancer journey.


  1. McNamee D. Music therapy improves coping skills in young cancer patients. Medical News Today. Updated January 27, 2014.
  2. Bakalar N. Regimens: soothing melodies for cancer patients. New York Times. August 15, 2011.
  3. Fremont-Smith Coskie D. Music therapy helps my son through cancer treatment.

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