The late neurologist, Oliver Sacks in his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” argued that music is essential to being human in ways that we’ve only begun to understand. Music stimulates the brain centers that register reward and pleasure, which is why listening to a favorite song can make you happy. There is in fact no single musical center in the brain, but rather multiple brain networks that analyze music when it plays, thereby giving music the power to influence everything from our mood to memory.
For cancer patients, music can be a powerful therapeutic tool in coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Music was so important to me, “says breast density and cancer patient advocate, Siobhan Feeney (@BreastDense), “because my concentration was so poor I really struggled with reading books and watching movies through chemo. I walked a lot and plugged into lots of beautiful music along the way.”
The Evidence Base for Music Therapy
Music therapy (the clinical use of music as a tool to help achieve treatment goals) is an evidence-based practice that harnesses the power of music to improve quality of life in people dealing with illness. References to music therapy in the clinical setting dates back to a series of letters, published in The Lancet, in 1891, which discussed the approach of a group of musicians providing live music to patients in London hospitals.  From that point, music therapy established itself as a recognized health profession in the clinical context.
Research findings have supported a wide range of music therapy benefits from changing brain waves to lowering heart rate and blood pressure. While clinical trials, to date, have been small, the results are promising. Music therapy has been shown to boost the effects of anti-nausea medications in patients receiving chemotherapy and reduce pain perception.
In a study of patients who underwent surgery for lung cancer, the patients who received music therapy before and after surgery, reported less pain and had lower blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. In addition, the dose and frequency of pain medication given after the surgery was reduced in the group who received music therapy. 
In 2013, a small Turkish study of 40 people found that using music therapy and guided visual imagery greatly reduced anxiety levels for patients undergoing chemotherapy. The patients also had less frequent and less severe nausea and vomiting. Similarly, a study, conducted in 2017, found that music therapy could help reduce anxiety in patients having radiotherapy simulation. 
The benefits of music therapy are not confined to the clinical setting. You can tap into your own self-directed music therapy session anytime by simply listening to some favorite songs or pieces of music. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out the following suggestions crowdsourced online.
Although I’ve categorized these music choices according to genre, take a tip from breast cancer survivor and classically trained professional harpist, Amy Camie, who challenged herself to listen consciously to her sons’ heavy metal music. In doing so, Amy discovered music “can be a profound step in the exploration of self, in the conscious act of honest reflection that goes by many names–mindfulness, meditation, self-discovery, self-empowerment, and enlightenment.” 
Both Blanca (@BlancaUsoz), who is caring for someone with cancer, and John (@walls2) choose a piece of music sung by their favorite choirs. For Blanca, listening to Leioa Kantika – Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (D. Modugno), sung by the choir of her hometown, lifts her mood. “Music has played a pivotal role in helping me live with a terminal diagnosis,” says John. “I’ve been privileged to have gotten to know the amazing @mountsionchoir, who sang “Don’t Give Up” by @andygrammer for me at #ChoirsForCancer. It’s now my anthem.”
Jennifer (@vitalfrequencies) opts for a classical piece from Beethoven; his opera Fidelio, or his 5th, 6th and 9th Symphonies being particular favorites.
Sally (@sally_crowe) finds Christine and The Queens’ song “Tilted” to be uplifting.
While Chris (@christheeagle1), who says he “fell back in love with his music collection through cancer”, chooses “Under The Bridge” by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ronny (@RonnyAllan1) suggests Oasis, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”.
Both Eva (@EvaAlloza) and Teresa (@tbaupuig) recommend listening to Spanish rock band Jarabe de Palo. Lead singer, Pau Dones, recently died from colon cancer, but his songs, say Eva, “are full of vital energy.”
Music is a universal language. It can open the doors to empathy and understanding. In the words of Camie,”In a world full of separation, anger, prejudice, fear, judgment, and pain, perhaps by expanding our familiar musical tastes we could slowly develop a listening ear for others who may not fit into our comfortable genres. Perhaps listening to music that expresses life experiences from different perspectives will naturally nurture more tolerance and empathy for our brothers and sisters around the globe.”
 Boyde C, Linden U, Boehm K, Ostermann T. The Use of Music Therapy During the Treatment of Cancer Patients: A Collection of Evidence. Glob Adv Health Med. 2012;1(5):24-29.
 Wang Y, Tang H, Guo Q, et al. Effects of Intravenous Patient-Controlled Sufentanil Analgesia and Music Therapy on Pain and Hemodynamics After Surgery for Lung Cancer: A Randomized Parallel Study. J Altern Complement Med. 2015;21(11):667-672.
 Karagozoglu S, Tekyasar F, Yilmaz FA. Effects of music therapy and guided visual imagery on chemotherapy-induced anxiety and nausea-vomiting. J Clin Nurs. 2013;22(1-2):39-50.
 Rossetti A, Chadha M, Torres BN, et al. The Impact of Music Therapy on Anxiety in Cancer Patients Undergoing Simulation for Radiation Therapy. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2017;99(1):103-110.
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.