CANCER TREATMENT CAN TAKE A TOLL on a person’s mental health, but a measure of relief may be found in something most patients already enjoy: music. Many cancer treatment centers and hospitals now offer music therapy as mounting evidence shows the practice can help manage issues such as anxiety and depression.

Music therapy involves a specially trained health care provider who incorporates music into therapy sessions. It “is not simply passive music listening,” says Andrew Rossetti, a certified music therapist and director of oncology music therapy at the Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. A music therapist uses music, such as by having a patient sing or play an instrument, to help them express their worries or to help create a sense of calm during moments of anxiety.

Therapeutic Music at Home

Patients can listen to their favorite songs as a way to help regulate their mood.

Based on evidence from 81 studies, a 2021 review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found music interventions, such as music therapy, can reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, increase feelings of hope and improve quality of life in adults with cancer. Some research in the review suggested music interventions had a moderate pain reduction effect and a small impact in reducing fatigue in people with cancer. However, more high-quality studies are needed to know the true impact of music therapy on cancer patients, researchers noted.

It’s All in the Lyrics

One form of music therapy involves lyric substitution, says Andrew Rossetti, a certified music therapist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. A patient selects a song and partially rewrites the lyrics to express their feelings. Sometimes people have difficulty sharing deep emotions with their therapist, but this process can help them open up.

“Music is this amazing clinical tool because it is such an incredibly unique and ubiquitous phenomenon,” says Rossetti, who was not involved in the review. “The entire human organism responds to music on a systemic basis.” For example, he notes, a patient working with a music therapist to address stress may find that listening to calming music selected by their therapist before treatment can slow their breathing and heart rate, easing anxiety in just a few minutes. Music therapists individualize their approaches based on a person’s musical tastes and preferences, working with patients to choose music they connect with and enjoy. “We have very, very strong associations to our favorite songs, our favorite music,” Rossetti says.