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Cancer Stories: When Music Is Medicine

March 13, 2015

Original story as published on March 13, 2015:

Allistaire is four years old. She is spunky and loves music. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at age 21 months, she has spent most of her life going in and out of cancer hospitals. Of the daily exhaustive treatments that she receives, there is one that she looks forward to each week: It is the sessions with her music therapist Betsy Hartman. 

The use of music for the purpose of therapy has been in practice for a long time. “Essentially, it is the use of music in therapeutic ways to address patients’ needs and goals,” explains Hartman, a board-certified music therapist who works solely with patients in the Cancer Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Those needs can be physical or emotional.

For patients who need exercise but feel too exhausted because of the harsh medicines and treatments they are receiving, music provides the necessary motivation. “When you have a guitar, a drum or a maraca in your hand, sometimes you can’t help but dance,” Hartman shares. Music gets the body moving and enables patients to get the exercise that they need. 

Music therapist Betsy Hartman works with children in the Cancer Unit at the Seattle Children's Hospital.

In some cases, what Hartman’s patients need most is emotional support. Receiving a life-altering diagnosis and subsequent treatments can be emotionally taxing. For many of her school-age patients, treatment means missing school, friends and their daily routine. “For kids, that’s hard,” says Hartman. “So, as music therapists, we work with patients to express some of those feelings through songwriting or listening to different lyrics.”

References to the use of music for therapeutic purposes date back to ancient times and across cultures. In the United States, the field gained official recognition in 1950 with the establishment of the National Association of Music Therapy. However, music therapy work was happening in the U.S. long before that. It was in the early 1800s when Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, advocated for music as a therapeutic tool. Two of Rush’s students went on to write dissertations about the use of music as therapy. 

David Knott, also a music therapist at Seattle Children's Hospital, has been practicing music therapy for over ten years. While Hartman is dedicated to the Cancer Unit, Knott works across the hospital and sees children with many different ailments.

“There is a lot of interest from neuroscientists in examining how music is processed in the brain, and some really interesting studies are being done or have been done,” says Knott.

Research conducted by Dr. Robert Zatorre and his team found that dopamine was released when listening to music. “Music activates reward centers in the brain,” explains Knott.

According to the American Cancer Society, some studies have shown that music can help with short-term pain reduction, as well as help reduce anxiety and nausea caused by chemotherapy. 

For Hartman, working with her young patients is a deeply rewarding experience.  “I can only imagine that it must be one of the most vulnerable and scary times in their lives, and the fact that they let me come in and offer something like music to them is an honor.”

Allistaire asks Hartman to teach her to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on a little toy cat piano, one of her favorite instruments that Hartman brings to share with her. As she learns the keys and sings along, she forgets the tubes attached to her, and the pain of the treatments that she is going through. In the sterile hospital environment, amongst the smells of medicine and sounds of medical equipment, Allistaire is able to escape to a sense of normalcy and just be a child, playing with the instruments and enjoying music just as she does at home.


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Producer’s note:
We are deeply saddened by the news that Allistaire Anderson, the little girl featured in this story, lost her battle with cancer on April 30, 2016. She was six years old. Allistaire made a lasting impression on us with her joyful and kind demeanor in spite of the exhaustive daily treatments she faced.

Accompanied by her mother, Allistaire bravely allowed us into her life for a short while. She loved music and we are eternally thankful to her and her family for helping us tell the important and inspiring story of the work that music therapists like Betsy and Dave are doing to help children undergoing cancer treatment.

We dedicate this story to the memory of Allistaire.

Memorial service for Allistaire takes place on June 11, 2016.

- Laila Kazmi


Betsy Hartman is a board-certified music therapist working in the Cancer Unit at the Seattle Children’s Hospital .




David Knott is a board-certified music therapist and a Fellow in the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy



Watch this story on PBS NewsHour Art Beat here and here.

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

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My son enjoyed every time David came in to his hospital room whether it was for 5 minutes because my son didn't feel good or 30 minutes to play or talk about music. So thankful for this option of healing and distraction and the doors it opened for our son. Music heals!