Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Music therapy filling void in cancer care

March 25, 2015

Music therapists Debra Burns, left, and Sheri Robb believe music can help cancer patients and their families. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBRA BURNS AND SHERI ROBB

Music therapists Debra Burns, left, and Sheri Robb believe music can help cancer patients and their families. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBRA BURNS AND SHERI ROBB

When Sheri Robb and Debra Burns first met as doctoral students at the University of Kansas, it’s unlikely they imagined that their professional paths would cross nearly 20 years later as faculty members and researchers at IUPUI.

But their diverse career paths -- Robb in the School of Nursing, Burns in Music Technology in the School of Engineering and Technology -- couldn’t overcome a shared interest in the potential value that music therapy offers cancer patients and families during treatment.

Their passion has made them two of only “three or four National Institutes of Health funded music therapy researchers,” Burns said. Their field is growing, though, as more therapists and researchers examine how music can improve cancer treatment and palliative care.

That music has the ability to break through pain, frustration, sorrow, fatigue and more is no surprise to Burns and Robb.

“Music is pervasive in our society,” Burns said. “People respond to music that is important to them and their loved ones.”

Advanced education and specialized training will make music therapy even more effective, Robb said. Research evidence helps integrate the clinical needs of patients and families, delivering effective interventions by providing them something familiar to deal with in a difficult situation, even in the end stages of life.

The two are investigating the use of music therapy interventions to manage symptoms and promote positive health outcomes in the cancer care setting, and work closely with care providers from the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and Riley Hospital for Children Cancer Center at Indiana University Health. The medical teams are crucial, they noted.

“We couldn’t do what we do without their help,” Burns and Robb said. “They help us study what patients think is important, not what we think is important.”

They also are curious about the potential of collaborating with other creative arts therapists, such as  Juliet King, director of the art therapy program at the Herron School of Art and Design.

“I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t find a way to create a Center for Creative Arts Therapy Research,” Burns said, contemplating a center focused on researching best practices in such therapies.

“It would be very progressive and interesting to see how music and art best fit into healthcare to improve patient experiences and outcomes,” Robb added. “Creative arts therapies provide a way for people to express themselves, explore how they feel and improve family communication.”

“The federal government spent over $200 billion in 2010 on palliative and end-of-life care,” Burns said. “We believe music therapy could be integrated to reduce costs and improve patient and family outcomes.”

The availability of music therapy services has grown, Burns and Robb noted, and they hope their research efforts will help establish music therapy as a standard care service, increasing its availability.

“When I used to tell people I was a music therapist, they would ask me what that is,” Burns said. “The good thing is, I rarely get that question anymore.”