How Music Helped My Dad Beat Cancer

Here's how we set my dad up with a restorative music regimen.

First, some good news.

My 77-year-old dad Ralph recently beat throat cancer and through it all, music was there.

Like many with cancer, he endured seven-week, 35-session combination of chemotherapy and radiation to treat it. 

As you might imagine, there was a predictable wear and tear of the treatments on his energy and mood.

During the process, he would feel pretty good during in the morning on treatment days, but right after radiation, I noticed how quickly his energy and mood sank.

By the time I’d get him home, he was ready for bed.

And understandably so… These treatments take a huge toll on the body.

Usually, when he’s feeling his best, my dad is a hard working guy with a big heart. And he loves making people laugh.

He’s also been a music lover (the apple doesn’t fall far…)—particularly music from the ‘50’s… I can still remember watching him and my mom, Connie, dance to it in the living room.

Considering I teach people about the healing power of sound, rhythm, and music for a living— it got me thinking…

What if I could use music to help him feel better?

My sister Kati and I got a hold of his smartphone and downloaded a free music streaming app, which we showed him how to use. (We use Spotify, but there are many other free or low-cost options like Pandora, Google Play, or Apple Music.)

Over the days that followed, I took a little time to curate a four-hour playlist of happy, upbeat ‘50’s era music for him to play any time he needs a little boost. I included songs like “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters and “Do You Love Me” by The Contours…

(You can listen to it here:

I also made him a relaxation playlist for bedtime/nap time, or when he’s trying to calm his nerves before his sessions.

And lastly, I made one that features music from my bands Rusted Root and The Sun King Warriors, which I know makes him feel happy and proud.

My hope was to give him something that he might use to distract himself from the pain and discomfort of his cancer treatments.

One week later…

On our trip back from the hospital, I could see Dad’s energy was waning so I asked him if he would like to listen to one of his playlists.

And as soon as he heard the first notes of Little Richard’s “Get Down With It”, I saw him crack a little smile… something I hadn’t seen in weeks.

He told me, “We used to listen to Little Richard and lift weights.”

I could see he was suddenly thinking about fun times from his younger days…and not cancer.

As the music played, I witnessed his whole demeanor shift.

For the remainder of our 45-minute drive, we listened and talked about each of the songs and the memories he had of each…

I really enjoyed our time together, and even learned a thing or two about him. (For instance, Dad is a huge Fats Domino fan, but isn’t a big Elvis fan. However, my mom sure likes “The King” enough for the both of them…)

Another week later, I got a call from my mother…

She sounded like her normal self for the first time in weeks…

Caring for my dad was clearly (and understandably) taking a lot out of her, but on this particular day, I could hear a little sparkle in her voice.

She just called to let me know that they’d been listening to the 50’s-inspired playlist all morning and that they were having a grand time.

Mom said, “He’s been smiling and joking all morning. Now if I could just get him dancing with me!”

Hearing brought tears of joy to my eyes. I hadn’t considered that they might enjoy listening to these songs together.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed that something as simple as a compilation of songs could give both of my parents some much-needed relief from his cancer battle!

So it was no surprise to me when I came across research validating the effectiveness of this simple idea.

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In a 2016 analysis published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a team of researchers looked at 52 different studies involving nearly 4,000 cancer patients—all of whom used music to help alleviate symptoms.

What they found was a pattern showing music’s beneficial effects on easing anxiety, pain, fatigue and improving quality of life among a vast majority of the patients.

Some even experienced a positive effect on heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.

In another 2019 study review of 40 clinical trials published in the Critical Review of Oncology and Hematology journal, researchers also found that music-based interventions produced similar results—particularly in reducing anxiety, depression, and pain.

When you think about it, music has been a reliable companion for many of us throughout our lives…

Yet during life’s more intense times—like an illness, a major setback, or tremendous loss—it’s easy to forget how much a “friend” like music can get you through the tough times.

Fast forward to today…

I’m elated to report that after months of radiation, chemotherapy, and Little Richard, my dad’s tumor has disappeared and the cancer hasn’t spread.

And another great thing came out of this experience…. Mom and Dad are still happily listening (and sometimes dancing) to their playlist!



Bradt J., Dileo C., Magill L., and Teague A. (2016). Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in cancer patients. Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews. 15(8). Retrieved from: Gramaglia C., et al. (2019). Outcomes of music therapy interventions in cancer patients—A review of the literature. Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology. 138(6): pp. 241 – 254.


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