For cancer care, songs heal

University researchers are using reverie harps to ease pain for children with cancer.

Kaylee Kruschke

From the moment of receiving their diagnosis, children with cancer and their families deal with agonizingly high levels of stress. And deciding to undergo potentially lethal therapy only heightens that burden.

It’s important for families and doctors to try to reduce the risk of reoccurring cancer with every possible option, said John Wagner, director of pediatric blood and marrow transplantation at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

But there could be simple, short-term methods for alleviating the physical and emotional pain of childhood sickness. Wagner is part of a research collaboration that’s exploring how music can reduce anxiety, pain and nausea for children receiving treatment at the University’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinic.

“There’s much more to living through this cancer than just getting chemotherapy or surgery,” he said. “You also need to … focus on ways to reduce the anxiety that goes along with that.”

Music keeps patients engaged in a fun activity and gives them a sense of power and control, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing.

“Studies like this are so important in that we want to do all we can to improve symptom management, ease suffering and improve quality of life,” she said.

As part of the ongoing therapy study, Wagner and Annie Heiderscheit, a music therapist at the Center for Spirituality and Healing, are letting patients use a reverie harp — a flat, egg-shaped version of a ukulele popular among music therapists, chaplains and caregivers.

Not only are the sounds and vibrations of an instrument pleasant for children, but actively playing and listening can distract the patients from some of the pain they are experiencing, Wagner said.

“You have something else to focus on rather than just sitting in your bed thinking about your discomforts,” he said. “And there is research evidence to support biological response to music.”

The benefits of music therapy for children with extreme cases of cancer have been largely unexplored, Wagner said, especially regarding a bone marrow transplant setting.

Researchers have to be particularly careful for those patients, he said. For example, they must immaculately clean the instrument because patients’ immune systems are extremely weak and could be endangered by a single cut.

Researchers also provide parents and other family members with a video that teaches them to play the harp so everyone in a patient’s room can participate, Kreitzer said.

For the research study, Heiderscheit recently began sitting down and playing the reverie harp with children in the blood and marrow transplant unit — who usually are unable to leave their rooms — to gauge how comfortable and curious they are with the instrument.

When she leaves the harp with patients and their families, Heiderscheit said, siblings often play it together.

“There’s been a really positive response,” she said.

Other times, parents play the harp for their little ones who don’t feel well, Heiderscheit said, adding that she has seen parents realize they need the music just as much as their child does.

In one case, she said, a father told her about an instance when he was able to lull his son to sleep using the instrument.

Expanding research

Ruth Bachman was an adult when her doctor said her left wrist — which contained a cancerous soft-tissue sarcoma — had to be amputated if she wanted to live.

After being treated at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Clinic, she became a national speaker on battling cancer. She funds University research projects centered on integrative healing methods with a portion of her earnings.

“It was gratitude for the excellent care I had received after my cancer diagnosis, and I wanted to give back,” Bachman said.

Bachman’s donation has supported Wagner’s and Heiderscheit’s music therapy study in its first year. But to further it, Wagner said they’ll need additional funding.

If researchers can prove their technique benefits children ages 8 to 17, he said they will study more sophisticated aspects of music therapy, like how music affects endorphin levels.

Further down the road, Wagner said he would also like to see the method used outside of in-patient and out-patient clinics, like at Ronald McDonald Houses or other community outreach centers for children with cancer.

“It takes a village to teach a child,” he said. “It also takes a village to care for our children under these life-threatening circumstances.”

Music therapy is one of many other integrative healing methods — like acupuncture and aromatherapy — being explored, Wagner said.

“No one wants to rely on medicines for everything,” he said. “Music therapy could be the approach that resonates with you.”