Alleviating the Pain of Cancer With Music Therapy

Music therapy can be used to help ease the pain that cancer patients experience.


Cancer is one of the most deadly diseases that affects thousands of people every year.


Cancer is increasingly becoming one of the most widespread causes of death throughout the world. In the United States alone, 1.8 million people are estimated to be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Most people nowadays have had some kind of interaction with cancer, whether it’s a loved one or themselves who have suffered from it. Music therapy is a tool that has been used to help people with all kinds of disorders and disabilities such as:


  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Autism
  • Anger management
  • Anxiety
  • Depression


Music therapy can also be used to help alleviate pain in cancer patients.


What is Cancer?

Google defines cancer as, “a disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissue.” The body is made up of trillions of cells and each cell has a life cycle. Cells are meant to be born and then eventually grow old and die. In cancer patients however, the life cycle of a cell becomes abnormal. Sometimes the old cells will not die when they should, and new cells are born when they shouldn’t be. The excessive amount of cells divide uncontrollably and create what we call tumors. As tumors grow, cells can remove themselves from the mass and spread to other parts of the body. This creates new tumors somewhere else within the body and explains how cancer spreads.


Types of Cancer

Cancer ranges in a variety of ways. There are more than 100 types of cancer. Some of the categories are the following:


  • Carcinoma
  • Sarcoma
  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Melanoma
  • Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
  • Germ Cell Tumors
  • Neuroendocrine Tumors
  • Carcinoid Tumors


What Causes Cancer?

Cancer is obtained by genetics and environmental factors. Some people are more prone to types of cancers in comparison to others. If someone’s grandmother had lung cancer, he or she is more susceptible to lung cancer compared to someone who has no family history of it. In terms of environmental factors, cancer is more prone to people who smoke or heavily use tobacco or sunbathe without sunscreen. For example, people who smoke 6 packs of cigarettes a day are more likely to obtain lung cancer at some point in their lives compared to someone who has never smoked. A person who uses a tanning bed 3 times a week is more likely to obtain skin cancer in comparison to someone who has never used a tanning bed.



This cancer patient is listening to music to help alleviate his pain.


The Role Music Therapy Plays For Cancer Patients

Cancer patients endure tremendous amounts of pain while receiving treatment. Chemotherapy can cause patients to feel flu-like symptoms, nausea, and difficulty breathing. Radiation therapy can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, fear, stress, or senses of loneliness. Music therapy has the power to relieve the pain those symptoms encompass. Listening to music has shown to relax the mind of those with cancer by distracting them from the pain with rhythmic sounds and tunes. Relaxation techniques with music are also a method used to help cancer patients. The techniques help to ease the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation to alleviate discomfort.


Specific Interventions

Cancer patients can use music therapy in two main ways. There are interactive music therapy techniques and receptive music therapy techniques.


  • Interactive music therapy techniques are things like instrumental improvisation or singing.
  • Receptive music therapy techniques are things like listening to recorded or live music.


Interactive and receptive music therapy techniques are both used to alleviate discomfort in cancer patients. These tools are mainly used to improve mood, decrease stress, pain, anxiety, and amplify relaxation. 


How Does It Work?

Evidence suggests that music therapy can help cancer patients by alleviating much of their discomfort or pain felt during treatment. The science behind how it all works together is not perfectly exact. However, research shows that music influences the neuronal pathways in the brain that are associated with pain, anxiety, and depression. Music stimulates these pathways in a positive way, causing the pain, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients to fade.

The little girl is happy because she’s listening to live music and the pain from her cancer is less severe because of the music.


Evidence That Shows Benefits

There are many studies that show how music therapy helps cancer patients. These three are some primary examples:


A study conducted in 2001 experimented on 29 cancer patients. During one of the sessions, participants felt an increased sense of well-being and less tension than they usually felt. Immune functions were seen as well as a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.


Another study was done on breast cancer patients. In 2001, there was an improvement in 20 patients waiting for a breast biopsy. Patients attended a 20 minute music therapy session while waiting for their biopsy. They reported that their anxiety and respiratory rates were significantly lower in comparison to the patients who were not exposed to the session.


In 1991, another study was conducted in Utah. There were 15 cancer patients taking pain-relieving medication that were assigned music therapy exposure. This study lasted for 6 days to see if the music therapy would help alleviate pain in addition to their medications. After the 6 days had passed, results showed that 47% of patients felt a pain decrease.


All in All

There are many ways for cancer patients to alleviate the pain they feel. While scientists and doctors still have yet to find a cure for cancer, there are methods patients can take to help ease pain and discomfort that comes from having the disease. Music therapy is one of the best ways to do so. It not only helps alleviate pain, but can also improve the mental health and stability of patients undergoing treatment. After all, research has proven time and time again that music therapy helps to relax and diminish anxiety and depression in patients.


Samantha Damico
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