Music Therapy Comforts Cancer Patients

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Tomoko Okumura wields the power of music and uses it for the good of others.

At the Juravinski Cancer Centre (JCC), Tomoko has hit a high note with her music therapy program. She provides an alternative form of care by sharing music with patients through singing and acoustic guitar melodies.

“Patients tell me that when I do music for them, they don’t have to worry about things,” says Tomoko. “They can forget about their pain for a while.”

Tomoko’s gift of music is truly comforting for her patients.

“They feel like an ordinary person,” she adds. With family members often in the hospital visiting loved ones, Tomoko sees her music therapy as a gift from the family to the patient.

She notes that her music is primarily about meaning.

“The music means something different from person-to-person,” says Tomoko. “Most of the time, people have certain songs that they are really attached to. They feel meaning behind it.” Tomoko recreates the experience for her patients, allowing them to remember and reflect. “It’s a way of validating their identity.”

For many patients, staying positive in the midst of illness comes with challenges. It becomes easy for them to start identifying with their illness; distancing the person they ‘used’ to be and changing how they see themselves. Tomoko believes that sharing music can provide a space for patients to review where they have come from, where they are now, or who they are.

Solidifying a patient’s identity through music can help to relieve the stress of illness by allowing them to revisit memories and explore strengths that are associated with certain songs.

“I see patients become nostalgic when I play music for them,” says Tomoko. “I enjoy seeing their reaction when I notice them feeling less anxiety or pain after the music is over. That’s the best part of my job.”

Dr. Michele Bertothy works with Tomoko and is a big advocate of the music therapy program.

“We received funding through the HHS Palliative Care Fund for Tomoko to come to Juravinski,” says Michele. She notes that music therapy has been around since the 1950s, but that it is not common in Canada. “It’s special when people get to experience it,” says Michele.

Michele explains that Tomoko focuses on four areas: pain relief, relaxation, mood and quality of life.

“Tomoko has very special training,” adds Michele. “She knows how to approach the patients and when to back-off. Tomoko has fit-in very well.”

“Juravinski is unique because it has music therapy while most hospitals don’t. Music therapy is popular in hospices, but not as popular in hospitals, so Tomoko’s work is very progressive,” says Michele. She believes that the effects of music on patients are helpful, especially for those who are struggling with other issues.

While Tomoko usually plays existing songs for patients, at times she will develop original pieces.

“Patients and families often give me song requests, but occasionally I can write original songs for the patients,” says Tomoko. “It becomes ‘their’ song. I love seeing their response when they enjoy the work I create.”

Sometimes she likes to modify existing songs and tailor them to particular patients. For example, Tomoko tells that she once modified the lyrics of “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Barenaked Ladies, changing the parts about what they would buy with a million dollars to things that the patient would like to buy.

Tomoko recalls an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) patient who was a big fan of country music.

“He didn’t have control over what he ate or when he slept; little privacy. He was near machines and noises and he didn’t like it. His family really appreciated my music since it added contrast to the hospital environment.” Tomoko built a meaningful relationship with him by allowing him to remember certain memories through country music.

Other ICU patients heard Tomoko’s melodies and began requesting songs of their own. The entire ICU eventually took to Tomoko’s music.