More than a thousand U-M cancer patients each year rely on the Comprehensive Cancer Center's innovative music therapy program to reduce anxiety, ease pain and nausea, and improve their quality of life during cancer treatments. Now, thanks to the vision and generosity of Bill and Dee Brehm, this program will continue to lift the spirits and wellbeing of cancer patients, in perpetuity.
A long-time musician and composer himself, Bill Brehm can understand why music is powerful medicine for patients undergoing emotionally challenging situations. As a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Army, business executive and entrepreneur, Bill has relied on music throughout his life not only as a creative outlet and source of great joy, but also for relieving stress.
"Music is a wonderful tool for expressing your emotions and letting your worries go," says Bill. "For me, composing has been invaluable in that regard - you can just lose yourself completely in the creative process."
Bill and his wife, Dee, first learned about the Music Therapy Program from Dorene Markel, director of the Brehm Center at U-M, when her brother Tony was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.
"My brother was a classic type-A personality who was driven to excel professionally. When the cancer forced him to stop working, music therapy reignited a long-lost passion for music," says Dorene.
Music therapy at U-M ranges from collaborative activities, such as song writing or music improvisation, to simply listening to music. While no previous musical experience is required, for patients like Tony with a music background, the experience can extend to composing, performing and recording original music.
"During his two-year battle with cancer, Tony immersed himself in song writing and, with the help of his music therapist, recorded two CD's of his own songs," says Dorene. "When he passed away, those CDs were (and continue to be) treasures for me and especially for Tony's wife and children. The whole process dramatically improved the quality of his life and completely changed his experience with cancer."
Many of the principles of music therapy are based on a concept called "entrainment," which means that your body will synchronize with outside sources of stimulation, like energy or sound. For example, a good resting heartbeat is 60 to 80 beats per minute. If you listen to music around that rate, it'll stay the same; if you listen to faster or slower music, your heart will respond accordingly. Music therapy also activates both the left and right sides of the brain, stimulating both analytical and creative thinking. According to the American Cancer Society, scientific studies have shown the value of music therapy on the body, mind, and spirit of children and adults.
Before his death in December 2010, Dorene's brother planned a benefit concert to raise money for U-M's Music Therapy Program. "He was so indebted to the program and believed in it so much, he planned to perform his songs and sell his CD's to raise money to help sustain this important program," adds Dorene. Unfortunately, Tony's health took a turn for the worse just weeks before the benefit and he was unable to perform. But several musicians in the area stepped in and performed the songs on his behalf.
"It was standing room only," adds Dorene, still visibly moved by the memory. "Tony was able to attend and it meant so much to him to know that the program would receive the funds."
After Tony passed away, Dorene sent extra CD's as Christmas gifts to friends, including the Brehms, along with a note explaining her brother's experience with cancer. The Brehms knew immediately it was a program they wanted to support.
Dedicated philanthropists, Bill and Dee believe in investing in programs where there is both tremendous potential and tremendous need. "Dorene has been so important to us that, originally, we wanted to do something to honor her brother," says Dee. "The more we learned about the program, we realized what a wonderful benefit it was providing to all the patients who used it. Over time, we decided to endow the program not only to ensure the program's future, but because it fit so well with our interests in advancing medicine and promoting music."
The Brehms have invested in many programs at U-M, including the Brehm Center and the Michigan Comprehensive Diabetes Center (both focused on diabetes research); the Brehm Scholars Program, which awards a full undergraduate scholarship and medical school scholarship to U-M for graduates of Fordson High School in Dearborn, MI (Bill's alma mater); scholarships and composing awards in the School of Music, Theater and Dance; and other generous gifts. They also recently endowed the UMHS Gifts of Art Program, in addition to the Music Therapy Program.
"I've been playing music for as long as I can remember," adds Bill. We're very pleased to be involved with a program that uses music to help people."
As an undergraduate at U-M in the 1950s, Bill led his own big band and started a vocal trio with a couple of his classmates. "We performed all over campus, including a concert at Hill Auditorium, and we traveled with the marching band. It was great fun," says Bill.
But ask Bill about his most important music memory, and he'll tell you it was a gig to provide additional entertainment at a Dixie Shops fashion show in Ypsilanti. "I was one of the models," recalls Dee. "After the show, we were all invited to a reception. When I saw him for the first time, Bill was playing piano for the rest of the guests. So, I guess it's accurate to say that music was what first brought us together."
Bill's original compositions have been performed at U-M several times by the Life Sciences Orchestra, and have also been performed at the Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. He is currently working on an opera.
The Music Therapy Program is part of the Patient and Family Support Services Program at U-M's Comprehensive Cancer Center, a suite of complimentary therapies designed to improve quality of life for cancer patients. These programs are supported entirely by philanthropic contributions. To learn more, please visit Patient and Family Support Services.