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  • Diagnosis and beyond - music therapy spans children's entire cancer journey

    Author: Nicole Madigan

For children experiencing cancer, the long and winding journey can take several years, spanning from diagnosis to resolution, with plenty of twists and turns in between.

Over that time, children will undergo a wide range of treatments, from a variety of different medical and holistic health professionals.

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Music Therapy is one treatment, that provides the unique service of accompanying a child throughout their entire journey, and can adapt to the child’s everchanging experience.

“In our hospital, music therapy in paediatric oncology is used for treatment support, mental health support and rehabilitation,” says Beth Dun, manager of Child Life Therapy and Music Therapy at The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.

“Our service is available to any patient with any medical condition, but the needs of the patient are assessed, and priority for MT services based on those three things.”

For paediatric cancer patients, music therapy interventions are aimed at diminishing anxiety, while encouraging active engagement with a patient's environment. 

“Engagement enables children to develop positive, active coping strategies to manage their anxiety and stress,” says Ms Dun.

“Music can alter stressful characteristics of the hospital environment and help divert the patient's attention away from a source of distress.  

“A child's mood can shift to a more positive state as they begin to experience success and mastery in their environment.”

Ms Dun says engagement in music also helps children maximise the positive experience they share with families, other children and staff.

“This has important implications in helping children cope with stressful treatments and long-term side-effects. The experience of creating music together has been a source of comfort and support for many families during hospitalisation.

“Opportunities are provided for patients and family members to engage in normalised, positive and shared music making experiences, this usually occurs bedside in the patient’s room.”

One of the most effective elements of music therapy is that it can be provided to patients regardless of illness limitations.

“For paediatric cancer patients who are required to be isolated, music therapy provides physical, cognitive and social stimulation.

Music therapy can be adapted according to how well or how sick a child is over the course of their treatment, at any stage.

“For example, when a child is first required to be isolated (such as when having a Bone Marrow Transplant), they are usually feeling well and full of energy and quickly feel cooped up inside the room.

“Music sessions involve establishing favourite songs and activities, playing energetic music, dancing, singing, using up excess energy.

“Later in the admission, sessions may involve quieter activities to divert attention away from feeling unwell and to build confidence in skills and abilities when they are feeling increasingly isolated from their usual activities.

“A child's mood can shift to a more positive state when they experience success and mastery in their environment. This has important implications in helping children cope with stressful treatments and long-term side-effects.”

In the field of allied health, music therapy is a relatively young profession. It’s peak industry body – the Australian Music Therapy Association – has had more than 700 member join since its commencement in 1975.

“Australian based research in hospital-based music therapy and in dementia care have advanced both awareness of and acceptance of music therapy as a mainstream allied health profession,” says Louise Miles, Senior Music Therapist (Oncology) at Perth Children’s Hospital.

“Music therapy is a recognised service within the NDIS and this has also grown awareness and acceptance of its applicability in community contexts.”

While use of the treatment is becoming standard for paediatric oncology patients, music therapy for a wide range of conditions, for people of any age.

“Music therapy is often used to help a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, behaviour, communication and movement including: autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, eating disorders, physical disabilities, and stroke rehabilitation,” says Ms Miles.

“Music therapy can also be used in hospitals and health care centres to help consumers deal with stress, discomfort and pain.”

It is used to help patients who have:
  • Cancer and diseases of the blood and bone marrow
  • Advanced diseases and have little or no chance of cure or recovery
  • Had a stroke or brain injury
  • Mental health illnesses
  • Had surgery or other medical procedures.

Even in its relatively short life, music therapy has had to undergo some changes, with the treatment increasingly making use of technology.

“Making music together and writing songs can provide an avenue for creative self-expression,” says Ms Miles.

“Technology is also being used more frequently for the production of personalised audio/visual projects documenting a patient’s journey. 

“Live music combined with relaxation techniques is also offered to help reduce pain and anxiety.”

The great thing about music for treating children, is that it’s familiar. It’s also great for adolescents who find music motivating during their time in hospital.

“It is something that offers choice and control when this has been reduced, it accesses the well part of the child and helps to remind them of their own autonomy and capacity,” says Ms Miles.

While there are many non-music therapy colleagues who are great advocates for the treatment, the profession still has more growing to do in terms of advocacy and awareness, says Ms Miles.

“I would like to see music therapy as something that all hospitalised children in Australia have access to and the profession work towards a more sustainable model in line with other allied health professions.”


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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications ( and a children's author.