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Music Therapy and Cancer Care: Psychosocial Support through Music

SarahRoseBlackby SarahRose Black, BMus, MA, MMT, Music Therapist, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Hospice



Defining Music Therapy

Over the past few decades, music therapy has been used increasingly in psychosocial oncology, and has been shown to greatly improve quality of life and assist with symptoms such as pain and anxiety. I’m always asked to define music therapy, and although each day can be very different for me, music therapy is essentially defined as the use of music and a therapeutic relationship to promote health and well-being. I use music to connect with people dealing with cancer at virtually any stage of the disease trajectory. Whether people are undergoing treatment, receiving palliative care, re-integrating into their communities after treatment, or providing care for someone with cancer, music therapy can offer a means of self-expression, and a way to process the issues that arise. Music therapy has also been highly effective in helping people cope with physical symptoms such as pain and nausea. Interventions such as songwriting can provide an alternative method of expressing oneself, and interventions such as inter-active listening (when the therapist plays and the client listens) can be soothing and relaxing in the midst of physical and emotional pain. I use a combination of many interventions such as these to create therapeutic goals with my clients (both inpatients and outpatients), their caregivers, and their healthcare team.

During my time as a student of music therapy, I noticed that although the profession had been steadily gaining significant credibility as an allied health field and complimentary therapy, there was and still is an enormous need for music therapists and music therapy programs. Because I had personal experience with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Ontario, I knew there was no current music therapy program in place, and felt strongly about beginning to make music therapy available to the hundreds of people who pass through the centre every year. With the help of Dr. Gary Rodin and the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care (POPC), I created and implemented Princess Margaret’s first music therapy program and was able to complete my music therapy internship over the course of a year. Within that time, we also implemented a music therapy program at the Kensington Hospice, a residential hospice in Toronto.


Identifying the need

Music therapy is strongly based in clinical models of psychology and psychotherapy, and through music interventions, therapists are able to personalize goals of care with clients. I have found that there is a great need for psychosocial and emotional care options that are offered in conjunction with traditional medical models; music therapy has been a key element of health care in many patients’ lives.


Stories through song

I have been so fortunate to have been able to share in many people’s journeys in both the hospital and the hospice. Each person I’ve worked with has invited me into their lives and shared their stories. The use of music to express stories has been extremely powerful in my own life, and it is a privilege to help others use music to express themselves. I have accumulated countless anecdotes in my time as a music therapist; one particular example comes from a woman who was facing terminal illness, and was struggling to find a way to express her hopes and wishes for her three children. She had never experienced music therapy and was open to exploring it with me. I learned that she had written a letter to her children, and did not know how to present it to them. I suggested she use the words of the letter as the basis of a song. When I offered this idea, she laughed and said she had never written a song in her life, and wouldn’t know where to start! Together, over the course of two days, she and I wrote the song, and I recorded it and created three separate CDs for her to give to each of her children. She also requested that the song be played at her funeral. This is but one of many examples of the type of work that can be done through music therapy, regardless of whether someone has had any previous musical experience. Another anecdote involves a young man who was also coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis; one of his final wishes was to play the saxophone one last time, as he had not played in years. The healthcare team and myself got together and organized the rental of a saxophone that he was able to play and keep in his room for several weeks. Each person has different requirements and needs from their healthcare team; I have found that music therapy spans a remarkable range of needs and desires of patients and their families, and can enhance the health care experience in a holistic and engaging way.


Music in everyday life

In our daily lives, we hear music all around us. While traditional music therapy is generally done on an individual or group basis with a music therapist, millions of people from all cultures around the world use music for emotional support and for healing in their every day lives. Some suggestions for the use of music in every day life include:

  • listening to music recreationally (on a portable music device or on the radio)
  • choosing music to match your mood (this may be a cathartic experience)
  • creating a playlist of your favourite music to listen to, or creating multiple playlists that you can use at different times, for example some people listen to certain songs when they are feeling anxious or depressed
  • YouTube is a great resource for finding new music, or looking up old favourites




SarahRose holds a Masters degree in music education from the University of Toronto, and a Masters degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the founder and coordinator of the first music therapy programs at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Hospice in Toronto. Her clinical work and research is focused mainly on quality of life for acute palliative care, hematology, and hospice populations. She is also a Suzuki music educator, piano accompanist and singer/songwriter.



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2 Responses to Music Therapy and Cancer Care: Psychosocial Support through Music

  1. Pat Taylor says:

    Sarah Rose – my daughter Sara played the Star Wars theme song as she walked down the aisle
    at her wedding. We also played it at her
    Celebration of Life service 18 months later!
    Music and song does make a difference!
    Thank you for the work you do!

  2. Pingback: World Cancer Day 2017: A few words from SarahRose Black - Cancer Knowledge Network

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