Rhythm Therapy: How Drum Circles Help Patients Cope with Cancer

Zeynep Aytekin, a 47-year-old management consultant, has always wanted to participate in a drum and rhythm class. Now, as a breast cancer patient at Dana-Farber, she has the opportunity to let loose her inner percussionist.

Zeynep drumming it out at one of her drum circle sessions.
Zeynep drumming it out at one of her drum circle sessions.

After some encouragement from a friend, whom she met at the Gentle Hatha Yoga, Aytekin joined the drum circle group offered through Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies. The drum circle, Aytekin says, is a great way to spend her free time while she is away from her home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and receiving radiation treatment in Boston.

“It has made me feel lighter and happier,” Aytekin says. “It has also helped me to forget about my radiation treatments, negative thoughts or any discomforts I had.”

Led by Heather Smist, music therapist and coordinator for expressive arts therapies at the Zakim Center, the drum circle meets weekly at Dana-Farber. The program, Smist says, can help distract patients from the side effects of treatment and get them focused on something positive.

“People come here all the time to get treatment, but this is a different kind of treatment,” says Smist. “We are creating a space for a community where patients can socialize and connect on a basis of their wellness, not their illness.”

The drum circle is designed for people with all abilities and no prior experience is needed to attend the class. The class follows a similar structure each week, typically starting with a gentle breathing exercise and brief introduction from each participant. Smist then introduces the different instruments and the sounds each one makes.  Once everyone is familiar with the instruments, the class creates simple rhythmic patterns mirroring Smist’s beats, and eventually progress to creating their own rhythms. The class finishes with Aytekin’s favorite part: jamming to the beat of her heart.

“Patients can get energized, get their blood moving, and redirect some of their stress,” Smist says.

In addition to being a positive outlet for patients, the drum circles also provide a unique skill patients can leave with after they finish treatment at Dana-Farber.

“I would highly recommend anyone who has the time to get started on drum circle classes,” Aytekin says. “They have helped me feel better and everyone in the class has made a real difference in my life.”