When Lily Knecht was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 18 years old, she found comfort in music therapy and decided she wanted to become a music therapist herself.

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A Musical Connection Helps Comfort and Inspire a Young Cancer Patient

When Lily Knecht was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 18 years old, she found comfort in music therapy and decided she wanted to become a music therapist herself. Dr. Kneisl, her surgeon, had a patient 15 years ago with the exact same diagnosis, who once made the same comment. That patient, Mason Swimmer, is now a music therapist at Atrium Health, and he helped inspire Lily.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” – Plato

When Lily Knecht was 18 years old, she began experiencing pain in her knee. It started in August 2019, when she was on vacation with her family. Then it got worse, making it difficult for her to walk. Lily consulted with an orthopedist, who recommended an MRI, which eventually revealed that she had a tumor.

A diagnosis of osteosarcoma

Lily was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that is usually diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults. It’s often found in the longer bones in the body, such as the legs. Symptoms of osteosarcoma include pain and swelling, a lump near a joint, and progressive night pain. Typically, an imaging test such as an X-ray or MRI suggests the diagnosis of osteosarcoma, which is then confirmed by a biopsy. Osteosarcoma is relatively rare, with only 800-900 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and half of these occur in children and teenagers. Only about 2% of childhood cancers are osteosarcomas, and it’s even rarer in adults.

Getting through treatment with the help of music

Subsequent to the results of  her own MRI, Lily was referred to oncology specialists  Jeffrey S. Kneisl, MD  at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (LCI) Orthopaedic Oncology, and Jennifer Pope, MD at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital Pediatric Oncology. She completed her diagnostic workup there, and then embarked on a 10-month treatment plan that included chemotherapy and surgery. Following the initial phase of her chemotherapy, Dr. Kneisl performed Lily’s surgery, removing the tumor, and reconstructing her knee by implanting a tumor-specific knee prosthesis.

Soon after she was admitted to LCI, Lily says she was having a rough day — but then Annelise LoVullo (a music therapist with Levine Children’s Hospital Hematology and Oncology Clinic) walked into her room. “She introduced herself and said she was a music therapist,” Lily remembers. “My mom and I just looked at each other, because something really clicked at that moment.”

Lily is an avid music listener who’s always been drawn to music and sought out various instruments from a young age. In thinking about her future career, she knew she wanted to do something with music or with helping people; music therapy naturally combines these two interests.

“With music, you can really form a connection with another person. And in music therapy, the whole person is taken into consideration. The goal of music therapy isn’t necessarily to make a person ‘happy’. They get to experience a range of emotions,” says Lily.

The many benefits of music therapy

Music therapy is being used in more hospitals and clinical settings as it’s shown to have numerous benefits for patients of all ages, with all kinds of conditions. From babies in the NICU to older adults with dementia, music can help calm, soothe, and uplift patients and can even help relieve pain and anxiety. Music therapists use a wide range of instruments — including guitar, ukulele, percussion instruments, voice, and more — and have special training that helps them tailor each session to suit the individual patient’s needs.

One small world

Dr. Kneisl says he enjoys learning about the personal interests of his patients, and Lily was no exception. “When she told me she wanted to be a music therapist, I nearly fell out of my chair,” says Dr. Kneisl. That’s because15 years prior, Dr. Kneisl had another teenage patient who he had also diagnosed with osteosarcoma, in the same location in his leg. That patient had also expressed interest in becoming a music therapist. That patient, Mason Swimmer, grew up to be a music therapist who now works at Atrium Health – Mercy.

Mason Swimmer was diagnosed with osteosarcoma when he was a teenager, and he credits Dr. Kneisl with his full recovery. “I had to have a total knee replacement because of the tumor in my upper tibia (shin bone). Dr. Kneisl had to take out my whole knee — it was a pretty extensive surgery. But I’ve been cancer-free ever since. I was grateful to have such a capable surgeon right here in Charlotte,” Mason says. Dr. Kneisl, who has been working in orthopaedic oncology for over 30 years, is an expert in sarcomas, which are considered rare and complex cancers. Over the years, Dr. Kneisl has seen the orthopedic oncology program at LCI grow tremendously and says the physician team working with the bone and soft tissue program have seen thousands of patients with benign and malignant bone and soft tissue tumors during this time.

After being immersed in the medical world at such as young age, Mason considered a career in medicine. Once he discovered music therapy as a profession, things fell into place. “I’ve always loved music. When I was a patient, things were scary, and I used music to find familiarity and comfort,” says Mason. He comes from a musical family and learned to play guitar, drums, bass, trombone, drums, piano, and more.   

“Since my experience with cancer, I wanted to work in medicine. Offering music therapy in a medical setting seemed like the best way to give back,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be a patient, not knowing the outcome, and having feelings of pain, anxiety, and loneliness. But music is a wonderful way to connect and let people know they’re being cared for.”

Dr. Kneisl felt that Lily would be overjoyed at meeting Mason. “I connected the dots and introduced them,” said Dr. Kneisl, “I knew that Mason was just the kind of person that Lily needed.”

“When Dr. Kneisl got in touch and explained Lily’s situation, I was happy to meet her,” says Mason. “I wanted to share my story with her, and offer support, comfort, and motivation.” Lily was happy to receive additional inspiration and guidance from Mason, as both a survivor of osteosarcoma and a music therapist. “I can’t believe that’s a job I could do!” she says.

Moving forward, musically  

Lily was given a ukulele and a guitar during the course of her treatment; in addition to learning new instruments, she’s been thinking about the next steps in her education. She recently celebrated her 19th birthday and says, “I’m feeling great.” Plus, she has a new puppy to keep her busy.

“My faith helped me get through my treatment,” she says, “And I had a wonderful support system through my family.”  Lily wants to be able to comfort other people going through similar situations. “I felt like music therapy — coupled with the care from the teams at LCI — has saved my life,” she says. “I looked forward to those sessions every time I had to come in for a treatment.” 

For expert cancer care, make an appointment at Levine Cancer Institute.