Friday, September 14, 2012

An oncologist's weekly music therapy

Tablet Magazine  I was a junior faculty member at a Philadelphia medical school many Septembers ago, racing to meet a research deadline, when my partner on the project announced that I’d have to finish the work myself because he intended to return home to Baltimore for the High Holidays. “I rarely attend synagogue services,” he explained, “but singing familiar holiday songs makes me feel like part of a community.” Up to that point, he’d done most of the work, so I couldn’t argue. Besides, his observation about the power in the music resonated for me.

Music can bring a community together; that’s something that many of us notice at this time of year, when Jews around the world gather for High Holiday services and share in the music we hear from cantors, choirs, and our fellow congregants. But music also has the power to elevate our souls and soothe our spirits, whether we’re sitting in synagogue or attending a concert. And as I’ve learned in my years as a doctor treating cancer patients, music is even a powerful medical tool, capable of healing our bodies, our hearts, and our minds. Music is so powerful, in fact, that I’ve made it a regular part of my therapeutic treatment.

It started when a young woman came to me for treatment of a tumor in the Broca’s area, a part of the brain that controls speech. Almost as devastating for her as her bleak prognosis was her inability to talk. As I finished planning her radiation therapy, by coincidence, my wife gave me a copy of Oliver Saks’ best-selling book Musicophelia. A New York neurologist, Saks describes the case of a patient who experiences a stroke as a result of a Broca’s area hemorrhage. Saks discovers that, although his patient has lost the ability to express himself in conversation, the man can still sing. I wondered: Would the same phenomenon hold true for my patient?

The next day, when I visited the woman, I started to hum a popular song. Her family was initially wary of this odd behavior, but they started to sing along during the second verse. By the time we reached the chorus, the patient chimed in—with the words. The latter verses of the song were more challenging to get through since we were all swallowing our tears. [...]

Also See Haaretz In sickness a path to spiritual health

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