Gamma Music Therapy

News | 19 days ago

Advanced Radiation Therapy, Set to Adele and Billie Eilish

Gamma Knife radiosurgery, an advanced radiation therapy, can feel a little claustrophobic. Music therapists make it easier.

Kimberly Giammarco thought she needed glasses. What she soon learned, however, was that her double vision couldn’t be fixed with prescription lenses; it was caused by a benign brain tumor.

Imagine the worry. Imagine having to absorb, so quickly, news that changes your life so dramatically. The good news for Kimberly, however, was that she didn’t require brain surgery. Kimberly was a candidate for Gamma Knife radiosurgery, an advanced radiation therapy at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Proton & Advanced Radiation Center (PARC) that treats certain types of brain tumors with an outpatient, non-invasive procedure that’s largely pain free. 

Pain free doesn’t mean stress-free, however. During Gamma Knife radiosurgery, Kimberly would need to lay completely still inside a machine while wearing a snug, custom-fit mask. She’d have to remain awake and calm during a procedure that can be stressful even for people who aren’t claustrophobic. It can be a lot to endure during an already difficult time.

While high-tech radiation technology would treat Kimberly’s tumor, a very different form of medicine would help her cope with the stress of it: the medicine of music. Music therapists offered to play music to ease her anxiety during the procedure.

“Music therapy is tailored to each patient's individual needs,” said Stacey Scott, the Gamma Knife coordinator at PARC who supported Kimberly throughout the process. “Therapists can help patients process their journey and emotions, reduce anxiety and meet any treatment-specific needs that may be difficult."

“You know you’re not alone"

When Kimberly met with her care team to schedule her Gamma Knife radiosurgery, she also met with the supportive oncology team. Atrium Health Levine Cancer does more than treat tumors; it cares for patients’ overall well-being throughout treatment. Sometimes this looks like a support group; sometimes it’s a massage or a cooking class. For Kimberly, supportive oncology sounded like music 

Music is a proven clinical intervention to calm patients, reducing their heart rate and stabilizing blood pressure. Music therapists at Atrium Health created a personalized approach to help Kimberly deal with the stress of her treatment. While Kimberly was inside the machine for about 20 minutes during each session, they would play songs of her choosing to help her pass the time while remaining calm and awake. 

Music therapy during Gamma Knife radiosurgery does more than reduce anxiety, however. When a patient is calm, that patient is more likely to remain still – which is essential for this type of treatment.

“Generally speaking, patients who receive music therapy during their treatment are better able to be still, reducing the need to interrupt their treatment due to movement,” Scott said.

Andy Hamrick served as an intern on the board-certified music therapy team at Atrium Health. She says when working with Kimberly, she learned her favorite artists are Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Adele and Ed Sheeran. Kimberly had the option to either stream songs from the original artists into the Gamma Knife radiosurgery machine, or the music therapy team could play those songs acoustically during her procedure. She chose the latter.

“I sang in the church choir and played piano for many years, so live music touches me in a special way,” Kimberly said. “Having someone offer to play for me specifically just made me feel phenomenal.”

Gamma Knife radiosurgery is a leading-edge treatment for brain tumors and disorders that is only offered in select centers, and the incorporation of music therapy with this treatment is even more rare. The Gamma Knife machine at PARC has a unique feature: the ability to stream live music into the machine for the patient to hear.

“Live music provided by our team gets routed directly to the vault speakers, so the patient can hear the music clearly,” Hamrick said. “We observe the patient through a screen, allowing us to adapt the music to the patient’s in-the-moment needs, creating the significant benefit to live music therapy.” 

Throughout Kimberly’s Gamma Knife radiosurgery sessions, her radiation team worked alongside the music therapy team. They could communicate with her during each procedure to keep her calm and to remind her she was not alone.

“I loved having people talk to me and walk me through the procedure, like, ‘You’re doing great, you just have three minutes left,’” Kimberly said.

Reducing the Stress of Treatments

After five Gamma Knife radiosurgery procedures, Kimberly has finished treatments to shrink her tumor, and her vision is back to normal. She’ll continue to return to Atrium Health Levine Cancer every few months for follow-up MRIs.  

“It is incredible to witness the impact of music as patients experience lowered body tension, anxiety reduction and relaxation,” Hamrick said. “After Ms. Giammarco’s last treatment, she said, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to get through treatment without music therapy.’”  

Learn more about Gamma Knife radiosurgery at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Proton & Advanced Radiation Center (PARC).