June 27, 2012

Healing Hits a High Note

by Marie Dilg

Playing in front of an audience is nothing new for Tracy Zander. The junior from outside Chicago has been playing the cello since the fifth grade. She has entertained large and small crowds, young and old listeners.

This audience, however, is different. For one thing, members are captive. They are tethered to oversized grey leather recliners by tubes coming from IV pumps at their sides. They also aren’t attending Zander’s concert by choice. They are patients receiving chemotherapy infusions at the Saint Louis University Cancer Center, and Zander is playing her cello for more than entertainment value. She is hoping her music helps the patients feel better while they’re getting better.

“The evidence is compelling that music can affect positive changes in a patient’s functioning,” said Zander, a public health major with minors in music and biology. “Playing at the Cancer Center is especially meaningful for me because my music might help decrease someone’s pain or elevate their mood.”

music therapy at SLU Cancer Center
Tracy Zander (cello) and Jessica Liu (keyboard) play before infusion patients at the Saint Louis University Cancer Center. Zander and Liu are participating in a pilot study of the impact music therapy might have on patient anxiety. Photo by Kevin Lowder

A Measure of Success

Zander isn’t just hoping her music helps. The impact of her performances is being measured. Zander is participating in the Cancer Music Therapy Pilot Study, a year-long collaborative research project between SLU’s Cancer Center and the Department of Fine and Performing Arts to see whether music during chemotherapy benefits cancer patients.

“We hope to prove that music can be utilized as intervention, just as medicine is utilized as intervention,” said Mark Varvares, M.D., director of the Cancer Center and lead investigator. “Providing music therapy to our cancer patients is cutting-edge treatment and speaks to our holistic approach to patient care.”

The Cancer Center provides 6,000 infusions annually and accommodates up to 20 cancer patients and their caregivers at any given time. Approximately 100 patients are participating in the study, which measures anxiety levels by monitoring blood pressure, heart rate and respirations per minute.

“Music is non invasive,” said Crystal Weaver, the Cancer Center’s full-time music therapist who oversees not only the SLU students but musicians from the St. Louis Symphony and Maryville University who volunteer to play at the center. “Unlike a drug study, there are no uncomfortable side effects with listening to music, no withdrawal when you stop. Patients don’t have to give any more time than they’re already giving.”

Playing it Loose

Pamela Dees, Ph.D., associate professor of music, encourages her students to play at the Cancer Center, but she doesn’t force it. Students who might be too anxious to play in the infusion room can play in the lobby for family members and friends who might be waiting for patients.

“Performing at the Cancer Center is a great way for students to learn about sharing their gift,” Dees said. “It’s also a way to get over performance anxiety. Students who take lessons worry about whether they hit every note or whether they’re playing fast enough. They need to learn to perform just so someone can say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ They need to loosen it up a bit, change the tempo and make it more accessible because that patient over there isn’t going to care if they miss a note. The experience puts things in perspective.”

Future Engagements

Zander is a pre-med student with plans to become a neonatologist. She expects to incorporate music into her medical practice.

“That’s another benefit of this program,” Weaver said. “We hope students who use their gifts in a health care setting will take that experience forward should they become interns or residents. They’ll remember the significant impact they had on someone’s life and will want to include music therapy in their treatment plans.”

Due to a growing interest in music therapy on SLU’s campus, Weaver and Dees have developed an elective on the history of music therapy that will be offered for the first time in spring 2013.

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