Working with a therapist to create music videos may help young cancer patients feel better about themselves and their situation, a new study suggests.
Teenagers and young adults who made the videos reported feeling more supported by family and friends and coped with their cancer in more positive ways.
"They're going through an experience that their peers don't really understand a lot of times," Joan Haase said. She worked on the study at the Indiana University School of Nursing in Indianapolis. "There's a lot of issues that they deal with."
Finding a way to express their feelings - and share how they feel with people around them - might help them work through those issues, the researchers found.
They studied 113 young people, ages 11 to 24, who were being treated for cancer with intravenous infusions of stem cells. Most of them had leukemia or lymphoma.
The preparation for those infusions is grueling. First, patients have to go through chemotherapy or radiation to wipe out cancerous cells. During the treatments, their immune systems become very weak and they can be in the hospital for weeks at a time, with symptoms like nausea and mouth sores.
All of the patients in the study met with a music therapist six times over about three weeks while they were in the hospital. Half were randomly assigned to work with the therapist on making a music video - writing lyrics, recording a song and selecting art - and the others listened to audiobooks instead.
The music video program was designed so that young people would be most involved in the project at the beginning and end, and have less demanding parts to work on while their symptoms were at their worst.
"It really targeted them writing, having an opportunity to write about what's important to them," said co-author Sheri Robb, also from Indiana University.
"A lot of these kids as they're going through treatment, they tend to not talk about these things," Robb told Reuters Health.
At the end of the study, young people in the music video group could invite their family and friends to a video premiere.
The researchers found that directly after making the videos, young people were coping with their cancer in a positive, optimistic way more often than those who had listened to audiobooks. A few months after treatment, they felt more support from doctors, friends and family and reported a better family environment than the other patients, based on their responses on questionnaires.
Making a music video didn't affect young people's distress related to their illness, however, or their use of more negative coping mechanisms, the researchers wrote in Cancer.
Brad Zebrack, who has studied adolescent cancer survivors, said the findings suggest the video project helped build on young people's internal resources and improve their self-confidence.
"It's not so much the cancer that stresses them, it's the fallout," Zebrack, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Reuters Health.
"One of the biggest challenges they face is the social isolation. Having to spend a lot of time at home, not being able to be with their friends for a lot of time. The disruption of cancer comes at a time in life when that type of social interaction is so important."
But, he added, "We know that most people bounce back. Most people are resilient."
Zebrack, who was not involved in the new research, said the benefits of working with a music therapist are likely to extend to young people with any kind of cancer, not just those receiving stem cell transplants.
Music therapists are increasingly considered part of standard care at children's hospitals, the researchers noted.
But most people in their late teens and 20s with cancer are treated in private oncology groups, which typically don't have a social worker or therapist on staff, according to Zebrack.
"The big challenge is how we can move this type of intervention from the hospitals and the academic treatment centers out into the community and out into the places where more young adults are treated," he said.