Struggling with Chemo Brain? Music Therapy Might Be the Way to Help

Experiencing Music Therapy Activities and Treatment Can Yield Positive Effects for Cancer Patients and Survivors -- Especially Individuals with Neurocognitive Issues.

Undergoing cancer treatment can be a physically and emotionally difficult process. Many stressors accompany treatment, including side effects that can impact aspects of day-to-day life. One of the side effects of chemotherapy treatment can be cognitive impairment, including mental cloudiness or changes. Because our cognitive functioning is responsible for so much of who we are and what we do, it can be frustrating for patients to experience this irregularity.

Fortunately, neuro-oncologists are finding that music therapy can be a promising treatment to combat the negative cognitive effects of chemotherapy. By listening to and creating music, cancer patients are able to find mental and emotional relief.

A doctor looks at images from a brain scan on a screen
Patients undergoing cancer treatments can experience a wide range of side effects. One such side effect is chemo brain, which encompasses focus and memory difficulties.

What is Chemo Brain?

Chemo brain refers to the cognitive changes a cancer patient experiences during chemotherapy treatment, including mental cloudiness or impairment. Essentially, chemo brain describes the ways that chemotherapy impacts the brain’s ability to remember, communicate, learn, and think clearly. 

Patients experiencing chemo brain may observe a decrease in mental sharpness and may have trouble concentrating, finishing tasks, or learning new things. Patients may also notice that they are having memory lapses, trouble multitasking, and difficulty remembering common words.

The severity of these chemo brain effects varies from patient to patient, with some individuals’ mental changes lasting for only a short amount of time and other individuals’ mental changes are long-term. Whether the changes are subtle or prominent, most patients understand that their thinking has been impacted. 

Causes of Chemo Brain

Although chemo brain is mostly linked with chemotherapy, it can also be associated with hormone therapy, surgery, and radiation. Chemo brain can also be exacerbated by:

  • Cancer conditions directly affecting the brain (brain tumors)
  • Other drugs used during treatments
  • Emotional distress (such as depression and anxiety)
  • Infections
  • Deficiencies in nutrition and diet
  • The use of alcohol and other substances

In addition to addressing these contributing factors, experts also recommend that patients experiencing chemo brain exercise, practice meditation, and pursue other cognitive rehabilitation programs.

A piece of sheet music rests over piano keys
Doctors and researchers have seen positive, productive connections between music therapy and reducing the effects of chemo brain. By engaging with music, patients can relieve their tension and anxiety.

Chemo Brain and Music Therapy

Focusing on the physiological and psychological needs of patients, as well as targeting the side-effects of cancer treatments, music therapy is primarily helpful in bringing relief to patients.   

Along with the standard treatment advice for patients experiencing cognition problems as a result of chemotherapy, medical professionals are recommending music therapy as a way to help both current cancer patients and cancer survivors overcome chemo brain. 

Certain music therapy programs integrate various elements of music, including rhythm, melody, tone, harmony, and lyrics. By engaging with music, patients are able to:

  • Work through their fears and anxieties
  • Express themselves creatively
  • Manage their symptoms and pain
  • Manage their stress
  • Improve memory
  • Improve communication
  • Progress in physical rehabilitation
  • And increase their feelings of relaxation and comfort

Music therapy does not just benefit one particular group of patients -- individuals of all ages and backgrounds have worked with music therapists to improve their symptoms and assert more control over their treatment plans. 

Importantly, music therapy does not have to be used independently of other types of therapies. Often, music therapists will work alongside occupational therapists, physical therapists, chaplains, and social workers. 

Active and Receptive Music Therapy

There are two categories of music therapy:

  • Active (interactive) therapy
  • Receptive (passive) therapy

In active music therapy, patients are directly engaging with music -- they both create music and describe their experiences with music. With receptive music therapy, patients listen to either live or recorded music. Given these different approaches, music therapists select treatment techniques based on a patient’s individual needs and preferences. 

In medical and cancer treatment settings, receptive music therapy can be easily incorporated. If patients listen to recorded music while receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy, the music can help distract the patient from their discomfort, fear, or stress. 

In terms of live music treatment options, improvisation can also be a useful exercise for patients. Both spontaneous playing and structured improvisation can promote feelings of control and can improve self-expression. 

Within music therapy cancer treatments, broader relaxation techniques are also included. By using music to increase relaxation, patients are able to decrease their tension, pain, nausea, anxiety, and depression. 

a hand holding an iPhone
New technology is allowing patients to engage with music therapy in a variety of ways, including on their own personal devices. 

Advances in Music Therapy Technology

With the rise of new and portable technology, music therapy has become a lot more accessible. At the University of Cincinnati, Doctors Soma Sengupta and Claudia Rebola have been designing a music app specifically meant for cancer patients interested in music therapy. 

Dr. Rebola and her team at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning have developed the Active Receptive Music for Cancer patients (ARMCAN) program. This interactive music therapy app has two functions for patients. With this app, a patient can

  • Stream and listen to music from any genre 
  • Create music by co-producing new tracks and adding sounds over main scores

No matter how a patient decides to use the app, the main goal stays the same -- getting patients into the routine of listening to or creating music for at least 15 minutes every day. With these new technological tools and capabilities, doctors are excited about the possibility of music therapy treatment for chemo brain and chemotherapy becoming even more widespread. 

A person playing the piano
Music therapy offers many benefits to patients of all ages and circumstances, and can specifically improve the conditions of cancer patients experiencing chemo brain. 

Cancer treatments can be difficult for both patients and their families, but there are many forms of therapy and therapeutic resources that patients can take advantage of during their treatment. If patients are experiencing negative side effects of treatment, including symptoms related to chemo brain and cognition, music therapy can be a helpful and valuable option to allay pain and stress. 

Annabeth Collis
Annabeth Collis is a writer from Buffalo, NY.
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