Life and Livelihood: Musicians Coping with Breast Cancer

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Sarah Schmalenberger


musicians with breast cancer, Life and Livelihood Study, performing arts medicine


Cancer survivorship -- an emerging research field, may be particularly helpful in understanding the physical effects of breast cancer and treatment on musicians. The National Cancer Institute reports that breast cancer survivors comprise the largest cohort of documented cancer survivors in the United States overall, representing 40% of female survivors. Nevertheless, the problems routinely encountered by breast cancer patients following treatment – such as lymph edema, post-surgical neuropathy, shoulder morbidity, post-radiation contracture, chronic fatigue, immune deficiency, and chronic pain – have not been extensively studied. 

Problems routinely encountered by breast cancer patients – such as lymph edema, post-surgical neuropathy, shoulder morbidity, post-radiation contracture, chronic fatigue, immune deficiency, and chronic pain – may be especially burdensome to musicians. Musicians depend upon their torsos and arms in their professional work, precisely the areas most affected by surgical procedures and adjuvant therapies. From holding an instrument to using lungs and arms to produce sound, a woman’s torso is the core of her livelihood.

Performing arts medicine, a discipline derived from sports and occupational medicine, could easily support studies in rehabilitative health for breast cancer patients. As yet, however, no one has studied the problem of musician’s injuries from a non-occupational catalyst. Research into the long-term medical and occupational impact of breast cancer is needed so that best practices – both in treatment and rehabilitation – can be identified and developed, to bring about best outcomes for all patients, including, specifically, women musicians.

The Life and Livelihood Study, commencing in September 2007, seeks to understand issues faced by women musicians with breast cancer, and clarify how the care of such women can be improved. This qualitative study will develop a profile of the impact of breast cancer and medical treatment for breast cancer on women musicians, toward facilitating a broader understanding of breast cancer survivorship issues in general.  This essay describes the research problem of musicians' survivorship after breast cancer, and argues for further examination of the impact of breast cancer not only on musicians, but also on those in other fields where physical fitness, strength, and stamina are vital to occupational and general well-being.

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