Music therapy helps relieve anxiety, emotions of cancer diagnosis

One day Gisele Bigras was a college student finishing up another year of school. The next day, she was a cancer patient faced with having one of her fingers removed.

The diagnosis: epithelioid sarcoma in her middle finger. Bigras, 19, was in a state of shock and panic. But music brought her back.

"Music has always played a huge part in my life. Music therapy helped me focus on something else other than the traumatic events of the cancer diagnosis, and just forget for an hour or so, to just go into a different world for a little bit," Bigras says.

Bigras is one of many patients at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center who participates in music therapy. The idea is to use music to help patients cope with physical symptoms, such as pain, reduce their anxiety and find an outlet for their emotions.

We find that patients are trying to cope with many things. They're trying to keep it all together, and sometimes if you give them a safe environment and permission to let go, a lot can come out through that," says Megan Gunnell, a music therapist at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Music therapy can be as straightforward as listening to recorded or live music. It could mean playing a guitar, piano or even just shaking a tambourine. It could mean writing songs or discussing the meaning behind lyrics.

For Gisele Bigras, music therapy turned into an opportunity to write and record her own song. The song, "Back on the Ground," covers three stages: the happiness before cancer, the chaos of diagnosis and the realization afterward that she could move on.

"Listening to it helps me realize I'm coming out of this. Everything's fine and I can move on from here," Bigras says.

Research in music therapy shows that in addition to helping with emotional expression, music helps reduce anxiety and perceptions of pain. Controlled studies also show that patients having music therapy show improved immune system functioning.

Gunnell points out that music goes back to the womb, where babies hear a mother's voice vibrating, her heart beating and the natural pulse of life.

"You don't have to have any musical background to experience music therapy," Gunnell says. "You're able to participate because you are naturally rhythmical. You have a lot of rhythms and melody already going on in your own system."

Getting Started

There are simple ways to enjoy the calming benefits of music. Start with these suggestions:

  • Listen to soothing music. Your heart rate can change based on the tempo of what you're listening to.
  • Bring an iPod or mp3 player to doctors' appointments to help pass the wait time and reduce anxiety.
  • Listen to live music. Seek out local performances.
  • Analyze the lyrics to a favorite song and consider what is meaningful to you at this time in your life.
  • Find music that matches your mood. Music can support you through a multitude of emotions.

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