Music and Cancer
As much as I have been dedicated to my music studies and singing career over the last fifteen years or so, nothing took priority over caring for my parents who were both cancer patients. Throughout their illness and lengthy cancer treatments; Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, palliative and end of life care, we found that music became of great benefit to us all. We were so fortunate that music was always carefully woven into our lives between hospital appointments and treatments – I genuinely hadn’t realised how much that would help us all through some of the most difficult moments of our lives. I was so fortunate to have time to speak openly and in detail with my Mum and Dad about our experiences; and our hopes for the future. This included how music, creativity and social activities had been a constant source of joy in their lives and an incredible supplement to their health care. They believed and cared that their story might help other people too. So it’s my greatest honour to keep singing and share these experiences in their memory.
It was during the Summer holidays after my first year of music studies at RNCM in 2006 (aged 19) that my Dad, George, was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma blood cancer. He had just turned 50, in the prime of his career, in a job he loved in the field of education – and he was seemingly fit and healthy with very few symptoms. We were told the results of his tests on a Friday evening after weeks of uncertainty and investigations in the hospital. Dad was sent home that night after we had received the news that he had incurable cancer, and we were alone over the weekend with no advice or information about if there would be any treatment for him – no hope. Our world was tipped upside down. I vividly remember that weekend we were thrown into chaos – rapidly having to reassess everything. It seemed obvious to me at that moment that this news meant I would need stop singing. Sadly I felt as though I was going to be pretty useless continuing to focus on singing songs while my Dad was facing life and death. Music at that point, in the grand scheme of things, seemed to be less significant. As much as the whole situation felt heartbreaking for all of us – putting music to one side to be the best support I could be to my Mum and Dad made more sense.
I spoke to my Mum and Dad about how I felt. Neither of them were musicians but they responded, in the middle of this uncertainty, with total clarity, selflessness, sincerity and their awesome courage when they replied with love, ‘Keep singing.’ Hearing this from them, at that time – it made sense to at least try to keep singing.
So, as we began to regroup, one the first deals we put on the table with our ‘plan of action’ after Dad’s diagnosis, was that I would look after my end of the motorway in Manchester with my music studies, and my Mum and Dad would look after theirs – while Dad was receiving treatments at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals and Clatterbridge Cancer Centre. We would support each other as much as we could at either end of the M62. I continued my training in Manchester 2004-2011 and Dad was receiving so many tough treatments between 2006-2014 with Mum as his amazing wife, best friend and unbelievable primary carer. Keeping music as part of our family during this time was the best deal we could have ever made!
A few years later during the Summer of 2018 – at 63 years old my Mum, Sue, then received an incurable diagnosis for Stage 4 lung cancer. This again came ‘out of the blue’. Unknown to many of us; lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Lung cancer is most often diagnosed at later stages because of silent symptoms. If everyone at most risk of lung cancer was screened, around 25,000 lives a year would be saved. Mum was in the 10-15% of people that develop lung cancer who are non-smokers. (Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation) At that point there were really no words – all we could do was cling to each other – my world. This time we would keep tight hold of the music in our lives that we had loved nurturing and sharing with one another.
We knew that Music had carried us through so much already – and it would carry us through again.
Living on borrowed time suddenly provides clarity. A sense of what really matters. Music matters more than ever.
My Mum and Dad were awesome. Always with me, in the audience of every opera or concert I was performing in; quietly supporting me through my studies and helping me to have belief and courage in what I was doing – gently encouraging me to still grasp opportunities as they came along. I’d be with them at visiting and hospital appointments anytime I could. We were so close. So many aspects of our lives rapidly changed through their cancer diagnosis – but our love for each other and the joy we found through the music we shared together was constant and it only ever grew stronger. No matter what treatment they were undergoing, or the stage of their prognosis; Music provided us all with hope, consistency, focus and renewed our quality of life; Together we found it to be a limitless source of strength, courage, determination and solace.
Music is a treatment in itself. There is a growing body of research continuing to show that music therapy and the introduction of music within patient care can advance medical outcomes and improve quality of life for patients in a variety of ways. This includes; pain relief, physical therapy and rehabilitation, reducing the side effects of treatments, restoring lost speech, and easing anxiety and discomfort during procedures. I have witnessed the benefits and learned firsthand how to utilise music to help care for someone, especially within palliative care. I believe it is one of the greatest reasons I’ve found to keep making music – wholeheartedly – with truth and love; for the purpose of hope; knowing the genuine difference it can make to a life. To aid anyone in living life to the fullest, at any stage, when they need it the most. I know we all felt as a family that music was a source of positivity – healing and, in its own unique way, music always rescued us from the times of destruction in our lives.
I have loved meeting and finding out more about the work of Music in Hospitals and Care UK this year. They are a brilliant charity helping to provide music for people who may have little, if any, access to live music – in hospitals and care settings across the UK.
I hope that staff, patients, relatives – alongside musicians themselves; students and professionals can always keep in their heart the value of music especially in the context I describe above. Musicians, music organisations and audiences should only ever feel empowered and proud when considering the extent of the positive impact music making can have on individuals and families; especially living with a life-changing or terminal cancer diagnosis – which increasingly so many people are now facing. I also hope in the future that patients, staff and relatives can have access to information and the opportunity to enable them to receive the benefits of music and that ways can always be developed to make this as accessible as possible for everyone.
“Music speaks what cannot be expressed. Soothes the mind and gives it rest; Heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”
Music – My Old Friend. My Mum and Dad always maintained such a positive outlook. I honestly don’t know how they did it sometimes with everything they went through – but most definitely the magic of music had something to do with their infectious positivity! My Dad often said, ‘Well, you just have to focus on the things you can do – not on the things you can’t do!”
Music was something we could still enjoy, consistently – it gave us a lease of life and the heart to rekindle our love for the memories of the aspects of our life we had lost.
Many times, along the way, I reflected on each patient having their own individual journey, needs, treatment regimes, pain management and symptoms to control – and their own ways of dealing with it, along with the unique response of each family member, friend and carer. There are changes and developments in the condition and symptoms of a patient on a daily, sometimes hourly basis – with carers having to find ways to quickly adapt care regimes and surroundings, such as introducing mobility aids to maintain independence for as long as possible. Complications often arise due to the side-effects of severe treatment regimes such as chemotherapy – with a high risk of infection due to immunity being lowered. This can all be greatly isolating and have a negative impact on mental health. The emotional journey of someone who has lost their independence, and of their loved ones, can be traumatic; as doing the many things that we may take for granted in life become no longer possible. Accepting this can be devastating. Maintaining a hopeful outlook in the face of these endless changes and challenges requires strength, courage, creativity and imagination. Living one day (or sometimes one hour) at a time – and making the very best of the life we have to live.
Live Music. The beauty and the mystery of music is that it is so personal to each of us and it can provide limitless emotional sustenance. The music we love listening to can ease our pain and provide an uplifting and fulfilling avenue at every stage on a very bumpy road. I’m sure that sharing and discovering new music during these times can help so many people too – it renewed us, inspired us, brought hope, connected us to the parts of life that we could still enjoy and changed our entire outlook at every stage. Having the opportunity to get ‘out and about’ to go to concerts and live music events was always a huge boost for my family. There were, however, often times when life became more restricted and finding alternative ways and reasons to continue to turn to music was invaluable.
At home. My Nan, Joan, was the person in our house who first inspired me to sing; she was a great fan of Hollywood musicals and Ella Fitzgerald – she introduced me to so many great artists and music. I have so much to thank her for! Singing along and listening to music together at home was our biggest joy, the hours would fly by – I can’t articulate how vital music was when she was experiencing near total paralysis through Motor Neurone Disease in 2004. (https://www.mndassociation.org) The music we listened to together helped us then and it is still with me now all of these years later. Playing music in the comfort of your home is the greatest privilege – especially on the rainy days.
Music in Hospitals, Clinical and Care Settings During the hours of traveling to appointments and in the waiting areas – or during long days of receiving treatments; my Mum and Dad loved enjoying the benefits of listening to all kinds of music. In the hospital environments and clinical settings the noise levels can often be very high and constant – day and night. It can be very busy, frightening and fatiguing. I stayed on the wards with my Mum and slept by the side of her hospital bed in a side room for over a month while she received her end-of-life care. During this time listening to and sharing music was invaluable in reducing disturbance and anxiety, and provided a positive and lasting focus for us both.
I hope in the future that musicians and artists can work to a greater extent with organisations, staff, patients and relatives to utilise carefully considered programmes of music and creativity within health care settings. With a focus on the possible side-effects of high-levels of ambient sounds in waiting rooms and wards for patients including; increased stress, greater pain sensitivity, high blood pressure, and poor mental health – this is also likely to impact upon staff health and performance.
Pain management and the big Scanners. My Dad and I would plan tracks of music to listen to that would help him through hospital stays. He slept each night with headphones on and kept music playing throughout the night. He especially found this helpful when on high doses of steroid treatments – when he was alone or his mind became most active at night time. We would choose and prepare CD’s together that he could listen to while he was in a CT/MRI Scanner. We found that listening to music could really help both of my parents while they were experiencing extremely high levels of pain.
Community Music. During my Dad’s illness we gathered together friends from our local community and formed a choir (in 2011). When travelling longer distances to live music events became too difficult for our family due to illness, we began organising concerts in our local church, St Ambrose, Speke in Liverpool. The choir and their live music activities, on the doorstep for so many people who are going through similar health issues or unable to travel far, are still going strong today. Mersey Wave Music now works with charitable and health organisations across Merseyside to create special programmes of music; especially at the heart of these concerts are the patients and their families. You can find out more at www.merseywavemusic.com
Coming together with members of the local community and making music to support each other is so uplifting! It’s understandable that often people feel unsure about getting ‘in touch’ or visiting someone when they are very unwell. Inviting people to events in comfortable local community venues, with a focus of music and fundraising for great causes, seems to do everyone a world of good! There are members of our local choir who are patients receiving treatments, carers too, alongside people going through bereavements and coming to terms with loss or loneliness. These regular and accessible local activities can help to alleviate the social isolation that being a patient, carer or relative of someone affected by illness can so often bring. Creating a support network, another family, nearer to home for patients and relatives was invaluable in our lives. These events and being a part of a community most certainly helped my Mum and I; particularly after we had lost my Dad – more so than we could have ever have imagined when it first began.
Simply remembering that music is always there for us at every stage in our lives – and that it always has the potential to change our lives for the better is a good place to start.
Music – for the moments when there are no words. It can often be extremely difficult to talk with family members and friends about their feelings, hopes and fears during diagnosis, hospital stays, treatments and/or palliative care. At times it’s an exhausting rollercoaster of emotions for everyone involved – particularly when there is an overload of information being shared about health conditions and treatments; alongside life changing decision making and total uncertainty. I guess I found the priority at the heart of being the best carer I could be, in these most vulnerable moments, was through always building on and maintaining a rapport with the person I was caring for; nurturing their trust and finding ways to truly understand, consider and respect how someone may be feeling and what they need. Connecting with each other by listening to and discussing music can be so calming, inspiring and ultimately the benefits of doing this together can be informative and helpful in providing care. This activity can help to open up a dialogue to establish the true needs of a patient in order to provide the best possible and most efficient support and care for them at the right time.
Connecting with a patient through music helps to make a positive and lasting impact on the quality of their life at all times, at any stage. This activity is cost- effective to support health care systems and staff – it’s a source of hope and progress at every stage that connects, patients, families, friends, staff and relatives.
My Mum had worked in the NHS for 40 years at Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital as Head of Corporate services and was personal assistant to Chief Executive Cardiothoracic surgeon Mr Ben Mead. So I spent lots of time at the hospital throughout my childhood when Mum was working there and many of our life long family friends are NHS staff and health care workers. We have all seen so many developments; in communications, treatments, facilities and the support services available for patients and carers over the years.
Palliative and End-of-Life Cancer Care. Specialist cancer, palliative and end-of-life care has had the greatest impact on me. I am really passionate about the role music can play in these areas; in improving the quality of life and mental health of patients living with a terminal illness, whilst also providing for the needs of the relatives and staff. My family received palliative care through a variety of settings and pathways; acute hospital, community based and hospice. Good palliative care is about a patient having the best quality of life possible, for as long as possible – days, weeks, months or years- through understanding and respecting each patient’s individual wishes and needs and having the right support throughout a terminal illness – to be able to live a life filled with hope that can be celebrated at every stage. Creativity has a great role to play in this!
(Thank you Bernie and all the staff at Whiston Hospital for truly recognising this and providing Mum and I with the most amazing support and care.)
Bereavement End-of-life Palliative care has a lasting impact on all involved; not least on relatives and close friends of patients who are a part of it – and the experiences during this time strongly influence how someone will cope during bereavement. Music that has been shared during someone’s life provides unique and personal ways to remember, reflect and ultimately celebrate the life of a loved one that has died. Music is precious, important and invaluable to help someone who is grieving through the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
“Where words fail, music speaks!”
It will always be the greatest privilege for me to have been able to care for my Mum and Dad. They gave me all of their love and so much of their lives and really taught me that, ’everyone has their own story.’ I hope I always consider that anyone I meet, or people in the audiences I sing for may also be carrying the weight of similar experiences. If you are reading this and your life has been affected by cancer, or any illness; whether it was a long time ago or it’s happening in the ‘here and now’ – my heart is with you. Thank you to all of the people from the various health and music organisations that have supported my family and I over so many years – I witnessed truly amazing achievements in the face of the greatest adversity – and will do all I can to keep supporting their incredible work. We also received the most generous love from wonderful friends and our local community. They all inspire me every day! My loving Mum and Dad are always in my heart – their love and light lives on. Words cannot express how much they mean to me. Thank God for Music!
- Song Recital Leigh Music Society February 3, 2020
- Lyndale Cancer Support Centre Concert January 25, 2020
- Mahler Symphony No.2 Kings College Chapel, Cambridge January 19, 2020
- Music in Hospitals and Care UK – RNCM November 27, 2019
- R-Charity Arriva Scouse 5K October 27, 2019