ST. LOUIS -- A Saint Louis University Cancer Center pilot study is investigating whether music affects the health of cancer patients by soothing them and making them less anxious.
"We can see that some of our cancer patients who are undergoing treatment are showing signs of stress because their blood pressure is higher and respiration rate and pulse is faster than normal. Our goal is to see if music can help bring those vital signs into a more normal range," says Crystal Weaver, SLU Cancer Center's music therapist and a study co-investigator.
"There are a lot of reasons cancer patients feel anxious when they come in for treatment. They may be dealing with unpleasant side effects of medications, such as hair loss or nausea. Sometimes they are thinking about how their illness impacts their family and finances and their ability to continue working. We want to find the best way to use music, which may not cost as much as other therapies and has no negative side effects, to help reduce their anxiety."
The study looks at three groups of cancer patients -- those who hear live music performed during chemotherapy infusions; those who receive music therapy in their hospital or exam rooms; and those who do not have music as part of their treatment.
Researchers will measure the study participants' body responses -- blood pressure, pulse and number of breaths taken per minute -- and note their answers to a questionnaire developed by psychologists to detect stress. For those patients in the music groups, measurements will be taken before and after they hear music while they are receiving treatment.
Some study participants will hear musicians from the St. Louis Symphony, SLU School of Fine and Performing Arts students and Maryville University music therapy students, who play music in SLU Cancer Center's infusion room.
Others will be able to choose the music they want to hear during a one-on-one session with a music therapist.
"Patients request anything and everything -- country, religious, musicals, music that was popular when they were in their teens and 20s. I take the music they like and play it at 66 beats per minute because previous research shows that tempo helped well adults relax," Weaver said.
"A pulse of 60 to 72 beats per minute is considered normal and we're hoping to match our study participant's pulse to the beat of the music. Once the heart rate begins to slow, the patient is more likely to take deeper, slower breathes and his or her blood pressure could drop to a healthy level."
The phenomenon of synchronizing the rhythm of the music to a patient's heart beat is called entrainment. It occurs when one person matches the pace of another so they can walk together or when the pendulums of two clocks near each other swing in the same motion.
Participants in the one-on-one sessions also will receive a specific type of empathetic, nonjudgmental therapy that opens patients up to participate in art and movement therapy with good results, Weaver added.
If the study shows that after music therapy, the pulse, blood pressure or respirations per minutes drop or patients' scores on the questionnaire to detect anxiety improve, more research into the benefits of much therapy will be justified, Weaver said. Future research could hone in on how much anxiety levels decreased after music therapy and how reduced anxiety affects a patient's recovery time, complications and willingness to comply with treatment.
The SLU Cancer Center is the only cancer center in the area to have a full-time music therapist on staff and the first to establish a partnership with the St. Louis Symphony. Mark Varvares, M.D., SLU Cancer Center director, received a national award in October for his advocacy work for music therapy from the American Music Therapy Association.
Varvares is the principal investigator of the study.
"While there's anecdotal evidence that patients who have music therapy after surgery need less pain medication, this research project is among our first to explore the connection between music and healing," Varvares said. "The pilot cancer music therapy study is a step toward helping us to better understand music's effect on health."
The study is supported by the Saint Louis University President's Research, established in 2009 to fund promising research projects with strong potential to attract external grant funding.
Established in 2002, Saint Louis University Cancer Center combines the latest in research, prevention and education with individualized care. For more information, call the Saint Louis University Cancer Center Information Center at 314-268-7015 or visit slucancercenter.org.
Weaver and Andrew Dwiggins, a Grammy award nominee who is completing his music therapy internship at the SLU Cancer Center, will present a free musical program from 7 to 8 p.m. on March 14, at the newly renovated main branch of the St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive Street.
In addition, the St. Louis Symphony will present a free music therapy showcase concert to highlight the partnership between SLU Cancer Center and symphony musicians at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 10 at Powell Hall. No tickets or reservations are necessary.