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'Ole Blue Eyes' and MRIs: Music Soothes Pain During Cancer Treatments


Music can help people tolerate and distract from emotional and physiological pain while going through cancer treatments and scans.

It’s my third scan of the week. I wonder what music to pair with the procedure. I choose Frank Sinatra. Six years ago, when I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I felt compelled to take Ativan (also known as lorazepam; an anti-anxiety benzodiazepine) prior to each scan to ease my anxiety. I selected supplementary music to help lessen my dread. Generally, I’d ask the radiology technician for classical pieces, particularly Bach, whose structured concertos seemed to communicate calm and safety to my body. I relied more heavily on Ativan back then to numb my fear.

I seemed to have forgotten that I’d spent years researching the physiological and psychological impacts of music in terms of its ability to help humans build connections with others and to increase expression of such hormones as dopamine and oxytocin. I knew that music could help people tolerate and distract from emotional and physiological pain. I had learned all this but it was mainly theoretical knowledge back then.

What led me to begin studying music in the first place was having experiences of music accompanying and carrying me through intense waves of grief over the death of a beloved family member, friend or pet. Initially I chose complex and layered compositions to listen to, like Mozart’s “Requiem,” or Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.” I eventually learned that other kinds of music — depending on listeners’ musical preferences, memories and experiences — could be just as powerful.

When my toddler nephew died due to an untreatable ependymoma brain tumor, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” helped his extended family and supporters face and emotionally process the ineffable and unbearable loss. “Imagine” was one of my nephew’s favorites, along with the theme songs from “Barney” and “Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

Years later, when a radiologist gave me a provisional diagnosis of late stage breast cancer, I selected a random playlist from my phone, which included Mary J. Blige’s “Sweet Thing.” Blige’s voice softened the bad news.

Despite the music, I had a panic attack, which my radiologist thought might be an allergic reaction to lidocaine. In the ER, I was given fluids and released. I’d never had a panic attack before. Maybe that’s when my doubt crept back in about music being sufficient to soothe me.

Over time — meaning during the last few years of numerous treatments, infections, surgeries and medical procedures — I have come to rely on music as my primary source of solace in moments when I’m most challenged by fear and discomfort.

Of course music isn’t my only source of support. I have had amazing oncologists, specialists, nurses and radiology technicians as well as supportive family, and friends and co-workers. Music has been like a constantly-evolving soundtrack in the background such that my memory of an uncomfortable procedure is eclipsed by the music I was listening to at the time.

Now back to this week’s third scan, where we started with Sinatra. It was a brain MRI and the radiology technician made a joke about “Ole Blue Eyes.” Our dialogue turned to playful banter. He wanted to share one of his favorite Sinatra songs— “You Make Me Feel So Young.” I realized that I was actually having a different, more pleasant, experience of a brain MRI. Even the intrusive, insistent tapping and pounding sounds become integrated into the Sinatra songs. I could relax. I could tolerate the tapping, and the intervals between loud sounds. I held my breath, then let it out, as the technician instructed. For the moment, I was glad to be alive, unconcerned about whatever the scan might show.

Earlier in the week, when I had a PET scan and an MRI of my torso, I listened to Aretha Franklin. During a heart scan last month, the radiology technician and I agreed to always listen to John Prine during scans. While he set up and positioned the scanner, we talked about music and concerts we’d attended.

He was training a new technician that day who hadn’t heard of John Prine. She said she loved the harmonies.

Down the road, she and I will find our music.

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