Supporting a loved one through cancer is stressful. Be it sitting at a hospital bedside for days at a time, surviving off of cafeteria food and Tim’s coffee, or negotiating an outpatient’s new routine of clinic visits, pharmacy pick-ups, treatment schedules, side effects, and all the emotional ups and downs of cancer, caregiving can be its own separate struggle.
As a music therapist working in both inpatient and outpatient oncology, family members often play an active role in the treatment I deliver. In the inpatient unit, I often play improvised or familiar music for the patient, with the goal of helping slow their breathing, decrease their pain experience, and increase an overall sense of comfort, wellness, and relationship for them. If a loved one is visiting, offering them a simple instrument to play, such as the soothing, hypnotic ocean drum, or a lively crash-cymbal, can be a wonderful way of inviting the whole family into the music experience. “This is really helpful for the patients,” I’ll often hear family members say at the outset. What these loved ones often soon discover is how helpful it can be for them. As we embark on creating music together, be it an upbeat drumming circle or a contemplative, relaxing soundscape, we all become attuned to one another’s breathing and playing, and to the whole musical experience. While the patient gets to focus on the sounds being created for them, the caregivers also get to experience the power of being in this musical relationship together. When they later say how much better they feel, I know that we have addressed the important, though often overlooked, need to care for the caregivers.
Similarly, family caregivers of outpatients have reached out for music therapy and found small ways to address their own wellness during stressful times. In one caregivers’ music therapy workshop I ran, the spouse of a patient with breast cancer was able to articulate his frustrations and challenges in communicating with his wife about his fears of losing her to the disease. There was so much being unspoken in his marriage since the cancer diagnosis, he said, because there were no words big enough to describe what they were facing. Through improvising together, we were able to access some of those “big” feelings. Crashing on cymbals, banging on drums, and pounding on the piano keys were just some of the ways we were able to begin accessing those fears. Once we had gone there in the music, we were able to go there in the words. We talked about loneliness, grief, anger, intimacy, and loss. Eventually, we were able to turn our conversations about those feelings into song lyrics, together constructing a full-length, beautiful song about his love for his wife. Sharing a recording of this song with her was, for him, easier and more meaningful than trying to struggle through a conversation about the things that felt too big to discuss.
And, in the sad moments where a patient is dying, music can be a lifeline for the family as they sit by their dying loved one’s side. Having had the privilege to play music for actively dying patients and their families, I have been humbled at the way that gentle, responsive sounds of a piano or soft singing can help bring comfort to everyone present, and hold the whole room together with a sense of shared meaning and beauty.
It is very challenging to carve out time for self-care when looking after a loved one with cancer. Music can be an amazing tool to help stay connected to one’s wellbeing. Music therapy in oncology can be a powerful tool for helping not just the patient, but the patient’s whole support system. Music can bring us together. It can help us rise above all the struggles of cancer, to instead focus on shared moments, memories, and meaningful relationships.