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Music may ease anxiety for cancer patients

By Sophie Ramsey

Listening to music may help people with cancer feel less anxious, while also improving their pain, mood, and quality of life, say researchers.

What do we know already?

More people are surviving cancer than ever before, as treatments continue to improve. However, a cancer diagnosis is still distressing and treatments are often taxing. Many cancer patients suffer from anxiety and depression as a result, as well as pain and discomfort from their disease and treatment.

Medicines and counselling can help many of these symptoms, but less is known about the benefits of alternative treatments. Several studies suggest that the simple act of listening to music might provide some relief. But these studies have been quite small, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

Now researchers have combined the results of the best of these studies to get a clearer idea of whether listening to music can help. In total, they looked at 30 studies with nearly 1,900 adults and children with cancer.

What does the new study say?

People who listened to music were less anxious than those who only had standard care. Their level of pain was also lower, and they had slight improvements in their heart and breathing rates, and blood pressure.

People listening to music also rated their mood and quality of life higher than those having standard care alone. But they did not show any improvements in their level of depression or fatigue.

In some studies, participants listened to music CDs prepared by researchers, while in others they had interactive sessions with a music therapist. These sessions varied, with some involving music-guided relaxation or imagery, music making, or music video making.

There weren't enough studies on each treatment to compare them and say which worked best.

How reliable is the research?

This review of studies should provide an accurate overview of what the current research tells us about the benefits of music for people with cancer. However, the review's findings are only as reliable as the research behind them. Unfortunately, the quality of most of the studies so far has not been very good.

However, it's notable that the review's strongest finding - that music may lower anxiety - is echoed in reviews of studies on music for people who have heart disease or are using a device to help them breathe (mechanical ventilation). This gives added weight to this finding.

What does this mean for me?

If you have cancer, listening to music may reduce your anxiety, and also improve your pain, mood, and quality of life. There may also be slight improvements in your blood pressure, and heart and breathing rates, although these improvements may be too small to make much difference to how you feel.

We still need more research to confirm these findings and also to find out what type of music is most helpful, how long and how often people should listen to music, and how listening to CDs compares with having treatment from a music therapist.

What should I do now?

If you are feeling anxious about your cancer, be sure to tell your doctor. He or she may be able to relieve some of your worries and recommend treatments and support. You might also see if listening to music helps. We don't yet know what type of music might be best, but experts say compositions with a slow tempo and no abrupt changes or sharp tones are relaxing for most people.


Bradt J, Dileo C, Grocke D, et al. Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in cancer patients. In: The Cochrane Library. Wiley, Chichester, UK.

Aug 10, 2011