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The rise of Music Therapy intervention for terminally ill children

Photo: The rise of Music Therapy intervention for terminally ill children
While the use of music as medicine is not a new concept, having been used in abundance throughout the history of human evolution, its implementation as an academic discipline has seen an increase in acceptance in recent times.

"Music therapy is gaining more recognition, as awareness by both consumers and health professionals increases through research literature and media publications," says Peter Maccallum Cancer Centre Music Therapist, Tom Buick.

"The support from multidisciplinary team members is also increasing as they work towards further promoting music therapy and increasing the number of referrals and access to music therapy in hospitals and out in the community.

"Philanthropic support through organisations such as Redkite and hospital and government funding has also assisted greatly in the increased number of music therapists in the hospital and how many days they are employed."
Mr Buick fell into Music Therapy almost by accident whilst studying to become a nurse.

"I worked as a patient carer in a nursing home, it was here in my spare time playing music for the residents.

"The smile that this brought to their faces and seeing those that were normally isolated or disengaged light up and start singing along or tapping their feet was priceless."

Some years later, after a jamming session with a local busker, Mr Buick discovered he could make a career from his passion, and officially became a Music Therapist via Melbourne University's masters program.

He now works at Peter Macallum Cancer Centre as a paediatric, adolescent and young adult Music Therapist, helping young people work through a range of physical and emotional difficulties.

"One is supporting the young person and their family during certain medical procedures such as a general anaesthetic or a CT-Scan, with the focus of my session aimed at reducing the anxiety and stress that might be experienced by the patient and their family/carers.

"The support is offered through providing them with choice and control over parts of their care as most of their decision making is taken away from them."

Mr Buick says taking care of the emotional wellbeing of patients is vitally important as they experience challenges during their treatment or disease progression.

"A music therapy session that uses particular music or therapeutic conversations can provide the young person with a space to express themselves, have their feelings validated in a safe non-judgemental environment.

"With the right facilitation and ongoing support music therapists can provide patients with resources that can assist in coping with treatment side effects and ways to manage mood and stress.

"Whether this be providing them with instruments, audio equipment or access to playlists that can assist in elevating mood or relaxing during stressful times."

There are also times when Mr Buick provides music therapy support purely for the benefit of the carer or loved one.

"Giving them some respite or just a space where they can be heard and not feel as though they have to stand brave amongst all this hardship all of the time, a chance to switch off."

Music therapy can play a number of varied roles within the medical framework, whether it is through psychosocial support, assisting with rehabilitation and recovery, procedural support or palliative care and bereavement work with patients and their loved ones.

Music Therapists  look to address the person behind the disease, helping patients with the existential crisis that can arise during their medical journey.

"Recent research shows the emotional and physical impact that hospitalisation and chronic illness can have on the person with the illness and those close to them," says Mr Buick.

"This has led to the medical frameworks having to shift their focus to a more holistic approach, attending to the psychosocial and emotional needs of a patient and their loved ones whilst delivering medical care and post treatment follow up."

In particular, Music Therapy interventions can provide incredible benefits to children facing the difficult diagnosis of terminal cancer - whether it be for symptom management or bereavement work with the patient and their family.

"This is also a great opportunity for the child to display their own identity and represent the healthy side of themselves and take the focus off their illness, where they are not seen as the sick child but the ‘singer’, ‘drummer’ or ‘musician’.

"A chance for positive interactions between friends and family during what is certainly a testing time. This can be an enjoyable experience, a distraction or an outlet."

As the age differs so does the patient's needs.

"A young child may benefit from a distraction, engaging them in a positive experience which can in-turn reduce stress and anxiety around a certain procedure.

"It may take a foreign environment such as the hospital and make it less threatening by providing familiar music which normalise the experience.

"A teenager on the other hand may engage best and benefit from an activity of songwriting or song sharing where they can express their feelings but also show off their musical identity, something they are proud of and that isn’t associated with them as the ‘sick’."

These days, Music Therapy procedural support is an intervention that is available at most tertiary paediatric hospitals.

"In partnership with the medical and procedural staff the aim is to reduce any anxiety and look to provide a positive experience for both the patient/child and their parents/family/carers.

"As research based evidence builds I hope that the amount of exposure patients get of music therapy increases also

"As the awareness of music therapy grows so does the support of other health professionals and disciplines involved in patient care."


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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.