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Music therapist 'stands by' breast cancer patient through chemo

"Where words fail, music speaks."

Hidden behind the brightest smile in the room was a woman facing one of life’s toughest battles, breast cancer.

Meet Stephanie Dullas.

Dullas was diagnosed with breast cancer in April and started chemotherapy in May. A mother of two, a daughter and a wife, she is fighting the good fight through each and every session.

She had six rounds of therapy to go through and has already completed four. She hasn't had surgery yet, but is scheduled for a pre-op in mid September. Her stage of cancer is somewhere between two and three -- doctors will have a better idea once surgery is completed.

Here’s the good news: Dullas’ body is accepting the chemotherapy and she’s almost finished receiving treatment. The bad news: the chemo is causing her to have neuropathy, which is weakness, numbness, and pain from nerve damage that typically occurs in the hands and feet. Research says an estimated 30 to 40 percent of people who undergo chemotherapy develop peripheral neuropathy.

There are currently no proven treatments or ways to prevent the weakening of nerves but there is one thing that has been helping: Ice therapy treatments directly after chemotherapy.

Dullas sits with her hands and feet submerged in ice bags for half an hour following each session.

Sitting she says, with any part of your body submerged in bags of ice can be unbearable. This is where board certified music therapist, Kamica King, MT-BC has turned a typically uncomfortable situation into something a bit more relaxing with her musical talents.

“I tried to walk [after chemotherapy] and it was just not, I was just too tired and nauseated, it was weird," Dullas says.

Dullas’ mother Jan was present for the most recent session and she says when she found out about her daughter’s cancer, she was absolutely devastated.

Because this isn’t your average therapy session, “where words fail, music speaks.”

That’s exactly King’s goal as she enters each hospital room. From the moment she walks in she asses the patient’s body language, facial expressions and caters her sessions with them according to how their feeling that day.

Music therapy, by definition is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship.

"It could be more of a physical goal, a patient is having particular procedure and there's need to divert their attention," King says. "Or it could be something more physiological because their heart rate may be high," King says.

Through lyric analysis, sing-a-longs or even simple listening, King works to alleviate any stress, anxiety or pain a patient may be going through at the time be it physical or mental.

“Thinking about coping skills and giving someone the opportunity to express themselves in a way they probably didn’t think they would when they came for chemo treatment is what I try to do," King says.

As King sings “Stand By Me” filling the intimate hospital room, Dullas smiles through the entire therapy session and she credits King with her ability to do so.

“I'm very much distracted from the cold and her voice, I don't know, it just takes me to another place,” Dullas says.

King says she’s always loved music and helping others so when she discovered this area of study, she knew it would be a good fit.

As for Dullas, with a few more chemotherapy sessions to go, she remains hopeful that her body will continue to accept the treatment and knowing King will be there for the ice therapy treatments, she knows she will continue to prevail.

When asked what piece of advice Dullas would give to others with similar diagnoses, she confidently smiled from ear-to-ear and said, “Don’t give up, it gets better...it gets better.”

If you or someone you know would benefit from music therapy, Kamica King and UT Southwestern can help guide you through the program.

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a music therapist or just the practice, The American Music Therapy Association is a useful resource to start your research.

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