Listen to My Story: Songwriting in Cancer Care from Patient Perspectives

Jacqueline Acho and Tori Obermeier, MT-BC
Jacqueline Acho
Music Therapist, Tori Obermeier

This presentation will examine clinical songwriting with an adult patient receiving chemotherapy, including a detailed songwriting protocol and education on the use of technology within an infusion center. The patient’s perspective will also be shared in order to give voice to his narrative and continue his legacy.

Presentation Description:

Clinical songwriting is proven to be an effective intervention within music therapy. Songwriting lends the opportunity for individuals to organize and share their own thoughts and feelings, leading to increased feelings of community and validation (Bruscia, 2014). Specifically within oncology care, songwriting “supports patients in expressing their thoughts, feelings, and spiritual needs, while also aiding in increasing social connections, and instilling a sense of self-worth and fulfillment (Lin, 2019). There are three main goals for this presentation: 1) To provide a step-by-step songwriting protocol to use in your own practice, 2) To provide education on current technologies conducive for patients receiving chemotherapy treatment, and 3) To share Hollis’ story with as many people as possible and give voice to his narrative, as that was his wish.

It is vitally important to understand one’s own identities and intersectionalities when approaching the therapeutic relationship. My own identities of being a young, able-bodied, Asian-American female music therapist plays a role in the therapeutic process, whether I am actively thinking about them or not. My theoretical orientation also plays a role, as I work primarily from a humanistic and culture-centered approach. It is important to recognize that these identities and ways of thinking create a certain bias when interacting with patients and gathering information.

The patient we will be discussing was named Hollis. Hollis was a 70-year-old black male with pancreatic cancer. He was referred to our services for coping by his infusion nurse. It is also common for patients with pancreatic cancer to experience depression, as it is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States (National Cancer Institute, 2020). As I was getting to know Hollis, it quickly became evident that songwriting might be a healthy coping mechanism for him to express his feelings about cancer and share his story. I will first share the recording of Hollis’ song and then go into depth about the songwriting protocol, technologies used, and Hollis’ narrative.

Whenever I introduce songwriting to patients, I usually follow a step-by-step protocol in my head, adapted from my undergraduate research: “Group Songwriting as a Self-Care Practice Among College Students”, further adapted from Felicity Baker’s (2015) Therapeutic Songwriting. The steps are as follows: 1) What is songwriting? 2) Brainstorm songwriting topics. 3) Determine song style/genre. Determine song structure. Determine instrumentation and accompaniment. 4) Compose lyrics. 5) Determine melodic structure. 6) Rehearse and refine song. 7) Record and share song.

“Chemo Highway” was written and recorded over a series of 6 chemotherapy appointments. It may seem daunting to facilitate clinical songwriting projects within an infusion center, where space and resources may be limited. However, with current technologies of GarageBand, Focusrite, and an iPad, it is very possible.

I believe it is our ethical responsibility as therapists to share our patients’ stories from their perspective. In doing so, not only do we share their story but we reinforce a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and anti-oppressive practice.

When asked what inspired “Chemo Highway”, Hollis said, “As I went through how I was feeling and what I was going through, I came up with a song about my journey, which is different from everybody else’s…I think my favorite part was knowing that other people would hear it and they might find some humor in it and some sadness because it’s real. It’s real. It’s the stuff that people don’t talk about. And we know they’re not gonna sing about it.”

Hollis said time and time again that he’ll share his song with anyone who will listen. When asked how it feels to share his song with others and have his voice heard, Hollis replied, “Everybody should have some story to listen to, something to hear, to give them hope. Cause maybe even though I didn’t get what I wanted, somebody else will.”

Songwriting during chemotherapy treatment may be an outlet for patients to share their story, process their feelings, and come to terms with their diagnosis. With the right resources and education, the logistics of rehearsing and recording within an infusion center are possible. My hope is that you leave here today, not only having the tools necessary to facilitate songwriting, but that you feel moved and inspired by Hollis’ story, just as he wished.

Learner Objectives:

  • Participants will identify a step by step protocol for clinical songwriting. (2020 CBMT Domain III. A. 5. m.)
  • Participants will learn utilization of current technologies (GarageBand, Focusrite, iPad) to record songwriting projects within an infusion center (2020 CBMT Domain III. A. 5. d.)
  • Participants will learn how to create a space that is conducive for recording songwriting projects for patients receiving chemotherapy treatment. (2020 CBMT Domain III. D. 8.)

Target Audience:

Students, Entry-level professionals , Experienced professionals

Presenter Biographies:

Jackie is President of The Acho Group, a strategy, and leadership consulting firm. Prior to founding The Acho Group in 2005, she was a Partner of McKinsey & Company. She has worked for technology, industrial, academic, nonprofit, and economic development clients on a variety of issues, with a particular focus on growth and innovation, strategy, and leadership development for 25 years. Jackie received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.S. in chemistry with highest honors from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is a certified yoga teacher, with a special focus on police/first responders. Jackie lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with her husband, John LeMay, and their children, Sophie and Grant.

Tori is a board-certified music therapist in Indianapolis, IN with Insights Consulting. Tori graduated from the University of Dayton with her bachelor’s degree in music therapy and completed her internship with Park Nicollet Health Services in Minneapolis, MN. Tori works primarily from a humanistic, culturally-informed, and experience-oriented approach, with the belief that music has the ability to tap into the “healthy self” of an individual, while also recognizing that music is not universal, and music therapy cannot operate from a one-size-fits-all approach. She strives to work towards developing an anti-oppressive practice, challenging the social and historical inequalities that are weaved into our healthcare systems and everyday lives.