How music therapy helps cancer patients cope in NYC: 'Music helps me take care of myself'

A music therapy program on the Upper East Side is helping cancer patients manage the highs and lows of their treatment. 

James Kopec is rewriting his life story and his own song on his path toward healing in a hospital, a place he couldn’t have predicted.

"I think it should be a necessity. It should be part of the healing process," Kopec told FOX 5.

He and Sean McNally, his music therapist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, are connected by the strum of strings and a deep love for music.

"I got to know what kind of music he likes. We did something called music-guided deep breathing," McNally shared.

Chemotherapy is now taking deep breaths finally after years of battling bladder cancer, more than 40 chemo treatments later.

"All my friends would say you gotta come calm down because it is. It’s a very…just difficult for everybody, anybody that has cancer. It's brutal. Brutal, brutal disease," Kopec explained.

Kopec, session after session, used that music as an unlikely remedy to address his pinned-up anger and frustration, helping him find rhythm within the chaos.

"Understand that I could debrief and remember what my mom taught me about utilizing my diaphragm to get my blood flowing," he recalled.

The pandemic was a major driving force for the project, as many cancer patients were shut out of hospitals due to limited access to in-patient care.

"It allows researchers to understand how one treatment compares to the other," Dr. Kevin Liou, an integrated medicine physician, said.

Liou and Research Music Therapist Camilla Casaw are heading the study, which will wrap up this fall.

The study compares music therapy to traditional talk therapy.

"Knowing that music is such a health resource because it doesn’t limit itself into just managing one system but also looking at the person’s whole life essentially," Casaw said.

"It definitely does give inspiration to want to study this further and see how it can help people and get people access to it," Liou said.

"It comes down to mind, body and spirit. You’ve got to have all three. Otherwise, you’re really not healed yet," Kopec said, reflecting on his virtual sessions.

With just a smartphone, more patients can find themselves healing by writing their own songs, finding their own path to that new beginning.