The 411: How Music Therapy Can Be Part Of Your Cancer Care

SarahRose Black, an accredited music therapist and registered psychotherapist to weigh in on all the benefits that music can bring no matter what age or stage you’re at in a cancer diagnosis.  

Music is an inherent part of our lives

From the everyday soundscapes that permeate our environment to the critical life events that punctuate our life stories, music plays varied and significant roles in almost all human cultures. Imagine the sounds that accompany your workday, your classroom, your commuting time, and your time spent with family and friends. Imagine the background to your social environments, your celebrations, your momentous occasions, that are both challenging and difficult. Music is present in joy and in grief. Because it is such a significant source of life story narration, music is often present when we feel inclined to reflect on our lives, and on moments that have created various emotional responses.  

Music can be a profound resource for coping

Music therapy can provide a number of tools that can support any age and stage of health and well-being. Generally, we as human beings turn to music at specific times for specific reasons. Often, we may access music that empathizes with how we are feeling. On days when we may be feeling filled with sadness, grief, anger, distress, or hopelessness, music can be an empathic source of understanding. Music may actually say what we are feeling in our hearts and minds, and it does so without judgment and without needing a response. On days when we are seeking to feel our emotions, music can hold us in a safe and often comforting way. On days when we are looking to shift our mood, and perhaps make a change in the way we are feeling, music can often act as a quick and effective way to switch emotional gears, and move ourselves into a different emotional space.  

Consider the role of music in your own life

Many of us already use music intentionally either to meet us where we are or to help us shift our moods, emotional states, or even physical perceptions of pain, discomfort, and energy levels. Using music intentionally can have tremendous power, and can effectively empower us to access, shift or change our physical, emotional or mental states.

As a music therapist at an urban cancer centre, I spend time with people exploring the roles of music in their lives, and using music, song-writing, improvisation, active playing, singing, and playlist creation among other tools to support people in their experience of cancer diagnosis, treatment, varying stages, survivorship, as well as palliative and end of life care. Most often, people I work with already have very specific associations with music, and profound connections to certain styles, genres, songs, and musicians, as this is a very common human phenomenon. At other times, people are surprised by the quick and effective way that music can access their feelings and inner world of experience. I encourage people of all ages and at all stages of health and well-being to connect to music in an intentional way.

Consider creating playlists that match a specific mood such as falling asleep, waking up, getting out and exercising, or finding a moment of peace and tranquillity in the midst of a stressful and intense time. Live music is another wonderful way to embrace the intense and healing power of music in your life. Many cities feature free or easily accessible concerts of varying genres. Universities with music programs often invite the public to attend free student recitals or faculty events. Local pubs frequently have diverse and unique musical offerings on a regular basis. Music festivals and concerts abound in the summer months however live shows are available all year long.  

Music equals meaningful connection

Sometimes, in the midst of dealing with varying health issues, the role of music may take a back burner, while the administration of health and treatment comes to the forefront. Remember your own inherent musicality: your heartbeat is a perpetual drummer inside your body throughout your life. Your body is musical and your life story has been punctuated by various soundscapes and songs: consider revisiting the songs that hold meaning for you.

I encourage you to welcome new music into your life to invite new memories and associations. I often ask friends and family members to share what kind of music they are listening to, and I often learn a lot. Know that music is an ever-present source of support, even in times when isolation and loneliness are prominent. Music can always connect, whether on an individual and highly personal basis, or in a crowd full of people singing along to their favourite song. Using music for health is an accessible, effective and enjoyable way to tune in to your own well being.

SarahRose Black is an accredited music therapist and registered psychotherapist specializing in palliative care and psychosocial oncology at both the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Hospice in Toronto. She is a pianist, vocalist, violinist and music health educator, and has performed, taught and presented on her clinical work and research across Canada.

SarahRose teaches courses on music and health care, and writes and publishes widely on the role of music in psychosocial oncology. SarahRose holds a Master of Arts in Music Education and a Master of Music Therapy, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, researching music in the context of assisted dying.


Looking for some more inspired listening? Check out these podcast stories

You may also be interested in

Stories by Wildfire: Coming to Terms With this Body
CANSWER HIVE: Our Favourite Products During and Post-Treatment
Rethinker Profile: Tania
50 Carroll Street Toronto, Ontario Canada M4M 3G3
Phone: 416 220 0700
Registered Charity #: 892176116RR0001

Join Our Movement

Follow Us

Donate Now

You can make a positive impact in the lives of people impacted by breast cancer