Author: Betsy Batish
As the last rays of sunshine bathe the desert in a warm orange glow, one deep echoing beat radiates from the slap of a hand across the tightly stretched leather of an African drum. It is the beat created by a patient who has been asked to express how he felt when he was first diagnosed with cancer. It is a lonely beat, a hollow beat, an expression of pain and fear.
The patient continues with the slow, methodical beat, and soon others in the drum circle are asked by the facilitator to join in and express how they are feeling today. The rhythm grows faster, more upbeat, conveying a sense of hope and strength, creating a powerful chorus of emotion that fills the desert twilight with sound. It is a symphony that swells with energy, ending with a formidable chant that punctuates the night sky: “We are here,” the group exclaims in vibrant unison. “We are here!”
A sacred space
For many patients music plays an important role in spiritual and emotional healing during cancer treatment. Whether it is singing in a choir or simply humming along to a favorite tune, listening to a relaxing melody during a treatment session or strumming a few chords on the guitar, patients often find spiritual solace in music.
Steve White, LCSW, a Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Goodyear, Arizona, believes that music has a positive impact on many of his patients. For those who are having anxiety about an upcoming treatment or procedure, the hospital’s Mind-Body team has created a music CD of soothing melodies to help them relax. The hospital also regularly hosts talented musicians, including a harpist and a violist, who move patients with not only their peaceful sounds but also the positive vibrations that are created by their live performances.
“If you’re in a room with live music, your body starts to feel and absorb the vibrations of the music,” White explains. “There hasn’t been a lot of scientific study into it, but people have reported that they feel better afterward.”
A drum circle held three times a month at CTCA is another unique and powerful opportunity for patients and caregivers to share their emotions while connecting with others in a musical environment. Andrew Ecker, founder of Drumming Sounds and facilitator of the drum circle program at CTCA, explains that up to 30 participants come together each week to create a “sacred space” filled with a sense of camaraderie and empowerment.
“It is an opportunity to connect with our spirit. The spiritual nature of our existence is very apparent when we drum with intention,” Ecker explains. “It’s about being present with one’s own connection to their spirituality.”
Ecker says that music is perhaps the oldest mind-body therapy, practiced before yoga or tai chi or qigong. “Long before doing those exercises, people were singing, and soon after they were beating on drums,” he says. “When we beat on a drum today, we connect with the rhythm. We connect with our human spirit. That is very powerful.”
Because there is no technical musical knowledge or expertise required to participate, the drum circle breaks down many of the barriers that might otherwise prevent a patient or caregiver from experiencing the healing power of music. Ecker believes that healing begins with the soothing vibration that comes from the drums.
“We all experience nine months of that type of rhythm—connecting to our mother’s heartbeat,” Ecker explains. “The vibration in the drums is the result of joining our heart and mind and spirit in action. When we drum we give ourselves the ability to feel beyond words. We feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, and we feel love.”
Juanita Acosta of Loco Hills, New Mexico, says that participating in the drum circle lifted her spirit during recent visits to CTCA for breast cancer treatment. “It just gives me a sense of relaxation. It releases your mind. Drumming inspires you; it connects your spirit with your body,” she says. “When I’m drumming, I feel light in my soul. I don’t feel worry. I don’t feel pain. I don’t feel anxiety. I feel a sense of relief. It’s a soothing feeling. It just takes you away.”
Juanita says the drum circle is a welcome respite from the rigors of living with cancer and undergoing treatment, such as the radiation therapy she received as part of her comprehensive care at CTCA.
“While you’re drumming, you’re not thinking about treatment or cancer,” she says. “I forget that anything is wrong with me. I just get lost in the moment.”
A former Dominican friar, international recording artist and trained therapist who often uses music to help people dealing with difficult life changes such as cancer, Kelly Walker believes that music has a powerful vibrational energy that can be transformative and touch the soul in unique ways.
“Bioenergetics would say that energy that is not expressed goes somewhere. It is important that any negative energy be moved for healing,” Walker says. “By sounding that energy, whether through drumming or humming or chanting or even using the ‘om,’ it can help us relieve fear, tension, sadness, rage.”
Walker believes that even the simple act of humming can have a healing effect, as those vibrations are able to reach parts of the human body that no other medium can touch. As a therapist in private practice, Walker has encouraged patients to try various types of music therapy, including chanting, singing and humming, as a way to heal. He describes musical vibration as a “salve” for the soul.
“Music becomes a tangible thing through vibration,” Walker explains. “The sound vibrates into us and through us and thus lifts up our spirits or calms our soul. Sometimes it leads parts of us that have been frightened or damaged to dance again.”
Walker says that live musical performances, whether improvisational or composed, activate the air, surrounding both the performers and the audience with a unique spiritual energy that is embodied as a total experience. “Music creates a bond that goes beyond words, and it can create a community of healing and a community of hope,” he says.
Walker believes that performing music in a communal setting can also be a liberating experience, especially for those who have been unable to share their feelings in other ways. “Participants are able to express their feelings in a crowd of people who are going to be accepting of those feelings because they are doing the same,” he says. “It can help them manifest some of the things that are going on inside of them, whether it’s anger or fear or sadness. Music can take them by the hand and lead them to places they would have never thought of going otherwise. It can help people rise up and stay alive in their spirit.”
A spiritual community
When Melinda Pollack was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she sought out a support group that incorporated music. As an avid singer, she was surprised to find that there were all kinds of support groups focused on activities from laughter therapy to yoga but nothing specifically dedicated to music.
“I feel that music is a healing type of activity on so many levels, so I was just really surprised to learn that it wasn’t available as part of a support group for cancer patients,” Pollack recalls. “So I decided to start something on my own.”
By the spring of 2005, Pollack’s idea of creating a small gathering where cancer patients could sing together developed into the Sing to Live® Community Chorus. Based in the Chicago area, Pollack says the chorus, which has grown from 36 original singers to 80 singers in 2013, provides a musical outlet and a supportive community that celebrates hope and survival for singers whose lives have been touched by breast cancer. In addition, the chorus provides the gift of music to the breast cancer community by, in part, offering complimentary concert tickets to breast cancer survivors.
“There’s so much compassion in the group,” Pollack says. “And everyone is so connected because we all have some touch point with breast cancer. So many members have told me how happy they were to have Sing to Live there to provide an outlet and support. Many have said that singing in the chorus has brought them so much joy while also healing their spirit. I couldn’t have dreamed up what an impact this would have on so many people.”
With the choir now entering its eighth season, Pollack says that participating helps members heal in a variety of ways. “For many it’s the focus of learning the music and rehearsals—it helps the members forget about the disease while they’re concentrating on the music,” she explains. “For others, they find the sounds of the eight-part harmony to be soothing or they are impacted by the words of the songs. It’s just beautiful. There are so many different ways music can spiritually touch someone.”
A spirit renewed
Back at CTCA in Arizona, Juanita stares up at the stars twinkling in the night sky as she taps out a rhythm on a buffalo drum, the vibrations cutting through the stillness of the desert air. She loses herself in the moment, worlds away from the fear and the anxiety she felt when she first learned of the cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2013.
Juanita may have found physical healing in the leading-edge cancer treatments she received at CTCA, but she credits the drum circle for renewing her spirit. Having completed her last radiation therapy treatment at CTCA, she now schedules her follow-up visits around the ability to participate in the drum circle.
“It’s such an uplifting experience,” Juanita says. “It is an opportunity to get lost in my feelings and communicate with my soul. It is a reminder that I am still here, that I am alive and that I am well.”
Source: cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/mindbodyand spirit/music-therapy