Music Therapy May Help Teens With Cancer Cope

January 27, 2014

By Mary Brophy Marcus
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Jan. 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) — Jefri Franks says one of the things that helped her 12-year-old daughter Heather cope with the challenges of having cancer was music therapy — in particular, making a music video.

“I was relieved during the time she was doing the video because she had something she had to do and enjoy,” Franks said. “She was busy in a good way. I think she got to tell her story the way she wanted to.”

A new study from Indiana University appears to back up what Franks learned more than a decade ago. Researchers found that adolescents and young adults undergoing cancer treatment in the hospital who participated in a music therapy program that included writing song lyrics and producing videos increased their ability to cope and boosted their resilience.

For the study, published online Jan. 27 in the journal Cancer, researchers tested a music therapy intervention in 113 patients, aged 11 to 24, who were undergoing stem cell transplants for cancer. The treatment involves infusions of healthy stem cells that help replace diseased ones.

“The kids are usually very sick during stem cell transplants. They require a lot of supportive care,” said study co-author Joan Haase, a professor of pediatric oncology nursing at the Indiana University School of Nursing. “Depending on the type of transplant, up to 50 percent of these kids undergoing stem cell transplant don’t survive, so being able to say how they feel about that is important.”

The patients were randomly assigned into either a therapeutic music video-making group or to a comparison group in which everyone received audio books. There were six sessions over three weeks.

The music therapist’s role was to offer structure and support, and to help the young patients reflect on their experiences and identify what was important to them, said study lead author Sheri Robb, an associate professor at Indiana University School of Nursing and editor of the Journal of Music Therapy.

“It may seem counterintuitive to be asking kids to do things during this time, but in actuality it’s helping them to move through their treatment in a better way,” Robb said. Music therapists encouraged their patients to tap into important parts of their lives, including their spirituality, family and other relationships, she explained.

The phases of the intervention included writing song lyrics, making sound recordings, collecting video images and storyboarding. Patients could work independently or involve family, friends and health care providers in their projects, the authors noted.

Haase said the therapeutic music video group reported significantly better “courageous coping” skills. Even 100 days after the stem cell transplant treatments, the music video group reported significantly better social integration and family-environment experiences.

Lisa Gallagher, a clinical music therapist at the Cleveland Clinic, said the study is well done.

“They did a lot of research into how to put this together, what measures to use,” Gallagher said. “It’s a tough population, adolescents who have this type of stem cell transplant. It is a high-risk treatment and so anything that can be done for patients who undergo this is great.”

Gallagher said it’s important patients receive therapy from a board-certified music therapist, like those involved in the study who have trained and completed either a bachelor’s degree, bachelor’s equivalency, or a master’s degree in music therapy, as well as internships. A qualified music therapist has also passed a national board certification exam, she said.

Shawna Grissom, director of child life at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis, Tenn., said she’s worked with music therapists for years. “When you don’t have a music therapist by your side, you really notice it,” she said. “We’re working toward the same goals — to reduce stress and help kids get mastery over some of the difficult things they experience — but in different ways. I’m coming from the north and they come up from the south.”

She said the study findings confirm why St. Jude relies on music therapy to help teen patients. “Just because they have language skills, it’s easy to assume adolescents and young adults can verbally express themselves, but that’s not always true,” Grissom said. “Making music videos allows these patients to project their feelings through another outlet. It gives them a sense of control, a medium in which they can express themselves.”

Grissom added that the coping tools they learn will last a lifetime. “We’re not just working on these skills for in the moment,” she said. “We’re working for lifelong skills. We don’t see this as individual patients coping just now or just during the months they’re here, but what we can give them for life.”

But even when a life ends too early, music therapy can be invaluable to a parent, according to Franks. Her daughter Heather died in 2001 just after turning 12. A life coach who helps others struggling with grief and loss, Franks said she talks about Heather’s experience with music therapy with other parents grappling with a child’s illness or death.

“One thing we did at the end, we got to sing the song that Heather chose for her video,” Franks said. “So Heather and her dad and I all three sang it together. We have her voice.”

More information

To learn more about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association.


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