Breast Cancer Recovery: A Unique Challenge for Musicians

International Musician, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Breast Cancer Recovery: A Unique Challenge for Musicians


Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed type of cancer in women, and according to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 182,460 new cases will be diagnosed by the end of 2008. Currently, there are more than 10 million breast cancer survivors in the US.

When freelance horn player Sarah Schmalenberger of Local 30-73 (St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN) was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her thoughts were focused on survival rather than recovery.

With the help of acupuncture and fierce determination, Schmalenberger, continued to work throughout her treatment, which included a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, afterwards, she faced a slow road to recovery.

Beyond Survival

"I assumed there would be some lingering tiredness and pain from all that I had endured," she says. "Gradually, over three years the cumulative effects of certain cancer treatments weakened me to the point where I could barely lift my instrument."

In her article, "Life and Livelihood: Musicians Coping with Breast Cancer," published in Review of Disability Studies (2007) she explains the unique struggles faced by musicians recovering from breast cancer.

For months she struggled to find the right treatment to bring her back to her former freelance career, but found a system of rehabilitation and therapists that were not set up to deal with the unique needs of professional musicians.

Yet, the most common side-effects of breast cancer treatment-lymphedema, neuropathy, shoulder morbidity, muscle contractions, scar tissue, weakened immune system, lack of balance, and pain-can make a return to normalcy particularly difficult for musicians.

"Musicians depend upon their torsos and arms in their professional work, precisely the areas most affected," says Schmalenberger. "Musicians are athletes in that they must maintain high levels of stamina, efficiency, and proficiency. The fitness of their upper bodies is crucial to sustaining their livelihoods."

Long-Term Struggles

During recovery Schmalenberger met two other members of her chamber orchestra who were experiencing their own breast cancer recovery symptoms. One string player's fingertips had become numb from chemotherapy and she also had difficulty concentrating due to a diminished mental acuity from chemotherapy known as "chemo head."

The fingertips of the other musician, a vocalist, were so painful after chemotherapy that she was unable to play piano. Her single mastectomy also had left her feeling unbalanced and constricted in her torso area, making it difficult for her to support her operatic singing.

Stories like these led Schmalenberger, who is also a musicologist and professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, to think there must be many other female musicians facing similar challenges after breast cancer treatment.

In her search for answers she found that a few institutions, such as Sister Kenny Institute's Performing Artists Clinic had begun to look at survivorship issues, but there was little research about the number of women musicians who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and about the occupational well-being of musicians after breast cancer.

"Musicians, especially freelance musicians, are often torn between the need to earn a living and taking care of their bodies," says Julie Liebelt, a physical therapist, who treats musicians at Sister Kenny's Performing Arts Clinic. …

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