Spotlight on Music Therapy and Cancer

On February 4th, 2023, individuals across the globe will join to commemorate World Cancer Day ( to spread awareness and increase support for individuals suffering from cancer. As this day of recognition approaches, we take time in this issue to shine a spotlight on current research in music therapy and clinical stories of music therapy practice in caring for individuals with cancer.

The Research

Highlighting recent research findings and reviews summarizing the benefits of music therapy for individuals with cancer

For adults living with cancer, the illness and treatment can be a physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually distressing time. Music therapy is a non-pharmacological approach to cancer care that can help alleviate physical symptoms, support coping and psychological well-being and provide space for cancer patients to process spiritual and existential concerns. Music therapy interventions in cancer care vary according to patient needs and goals and may include receptive methods, such as listening to live or recorded music and discussing song lyrics, as well as more active methods, such as writing songs, singing, or playing instruments.

In a recent review of research studies evaluating music therapy in cancer care, Friederike Köhler and colleagues found that even a single session of music therapy had positive effects on psychological well-being among cancer patients. The researchers also reported differing outcomes for individuals in different phases of cancer treatment. Individuals in curative treatment reported reductions in depression and anxiety as positive outcomes; whereas for cancer patients receiving palliative care, improved quality of life and reduced pain were noted benefits of music therapy. Click here to read the full article and discover the other benefits of music therapy for adults with cancer.

As many of us are painfully aware, cancer not only impacts adults but interrupts the lives of numerous children across the globe. Like adults, children and adolescents living with cancer face ongoing physical and psychological challenges. Fortunately, children and adolescents with cancer can also receive physical and psychosocial benefits from participating in music therapy.

Upon completing a review of the literature on music therapy for children with cancer and conducting surveys on current music therapy practice, music therapist David Knott and colleagues concluded there were many benefits to providing music therapy to children and adolescents living with cancer. Consistent with research on adults with cancer, this study found that music therapy is effective in helping children cope with or reduce experiences of pain during cancer treatments. In addition, it noted the familial benefits of music therapy as a support not only to the child with cancer but also their caregivers and siblings. For a comprehensive account of their findings as well as case examples from Knott and colleagues’ research, you can access the full article here.

The Stories

Learning about music therapy in cancer care treatment from music therapists and their clients’ stories

Although learning the facts and figures about how music therapy benefits people with cancer is intriguing and fosters clinical application, behind all this research are stories of individuals who participated in music therapy and whose lives were changed because of it. Alongside discovering the scientific support for music therapy in cancer care, it is an insightful and meaningful endeavour to hear about these individuals’ experiences of participating in music therapy. Each is a unique journey, an exceptional story worth hearing.

Music therapist Kathy Jo Gutgsell honours cancer patients she has worked with and who guided her own research in her article, “A Music Therapist Shares Stories of Patients with Cancer.” In the commentary, Gutgsell shares about five cancer patients and their differing music therapy experiences. She describes moments of peace, tears, joy, and reconciliation as each individual connected with the music in a way that matched their unique needs. To read these heartwarming stories, click here.

Suzanne Hanser is another music therapist who likewise has worked with patients with cancer and conducted research on music therapy in cancer care. In a podcast on music and health, Hanser describes working with a patient with breast cancer and the various music therapy interventions they engaged in from improvisation to spontaneous songwriting. To access this episode of the On Point podcast, click here.

In the Canadian Music Therapy Podcast, music therapist Sara Rose Black takes a different storied approach, noting themes central to her patients at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Ontario, before telling the story of one gentleman who engaged in music therapy. Black highlights how her music therapy work creates space for addressing existential issues, finding stillness, promoting reflection, and embracing silence. To hear her patient’s story and the themes that arise from the bedside services she provides to patients and their families, click here.

Links for this edition:

The Research

The Stories

Published : January 27, 2023