Skip to main content

Beating cancer, one drum rhythm at a time

Event featuring ASU students, faculty and alumni aims to inspire well-being and healing at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center

ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts students, faculty, alums treat cancer survivors to drum circle demo

Taking part in the opening round of the drumming circle at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center on June 6 were (from far right): Katarina Scott, wellness program counselor at the center and ASU master of counseling alumna; Kristian Mastin, ASU master of counseling student; Santosh Rao, oncologist and director of integrative oncology; ASU doctorate of musical arts alumna and percussionist Sonja Branch; and Mlee Clark, oncology massage therapist. Photo by Kelley Karnes/ASU

June 08, 2017

ASU counseling master's student Kristian Mastin’s learned instrument is the banjo.

But this week, in between seeing youth clients as a clinical intern in a small Mesa counseling practice, Mastin headed over to Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona, to beat out rhythms on a Senegalese sabar drum with ASU alumna Dr. Sonja Branch, who led a drum circle to inspire hope and well-being as part of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Survivorship Week events.

Tuesday’s event featured inspirational words from survivors, several tables with patient resources, cancer-ribbon face painting for guests to show their support, and celebratory cake. But for a half-hour, all eyes and ears were on the drums, and cancer survivors and Banner MD Anderson caregivers and other staff enjoyed slipping in and out of the drumming circle to learn basic sabar techniques (use one hand and one stick) and beat out patterns linked to wellness-focused chants.

Mastin and Branch are strong believers in the therapeutic benefits of music and rhythmic drumming, which Mastin says can help people keep a positive center of focus: “It’s like getting a song stuck in your head, but in the form of a supportive mantra.”  

“Language manifested on the drum gives us respite from daily troubles and reminds us of good things,” Branch explained, as she introduced the session to an atrium full of patients, survivors, caregivers and staff.

One of the patterns played in the drum circle was:

     Each day (palm, stick)

     Each week (palm, stick)

     Each month (palm, stick)

     Each year (palm, stick)

     I will take each one (quickly, all stick)

     Step by step (palm, stick, hand).

Another pattern integrated the rhythm and chants of “I will love myself” with “Don’t give up.”

Katarina Scott, a 2015 graduate of ASU’s Master of Counseling program, helped organize the full week of survivor celebration events in her current role as wellness program counselor in the James M. Cox Foundation Center for Cancer Prevention and Integrative Oncology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Scott said the drumming session came about when she reached out to Cynthia Glidden-Tracey, clinical associate professor in counseling and counseling psychology in ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, to see if she might want to do any presentations as part of the Cancer Center’s ongoing programming related to integrative health.

“As a faculty member, I’m delighted to have a former student make good use of learning and resources she gained from her time at ASU,” wrote Glidden-Tracy in an e-mail, “and Katarina provided me the opportunity to involve some students and alumni I work with, both from our counseling program and the music therapy and percussion studies programs in the ASU Herberger Institute — truly integrating the sciences and the arts!”

Glidden-Tracy was traveling and couldn’t be there for the June 6 event, but on Sept.19 she will lead another presentation at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center on “Rhythmic Cognitive Restructuring,” a technique she has developed that combines elements of psychotherapy and music therapy, and will again be bringing a team of ASU students and alumni.   

More Health and medicine


abstract image of vital sign indicator line with a heart between two hands

Does low testosterone lead to heart disease?

Is low testosterone a contributor to cardiovascular disease? Is testosterone replacement the answer? It's a bit more complicated…

February 20, 2024
Close-up view of a microphone.

ASU college to launch Speakers Bureau focused on health topics

Dean Judith Karshmer believes a misnomer exists about Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation…

February 09, 2024
People seated in a circle talking.

ASU REACH Institute, Center for Resilient Families host event to promote family resilience

Childhood trauma isn’t always preventable. But what researchers do know is that engaging parents in their children’s healing has…

February 08, 2024