“I joined the classes because I thought they would be interesting, uplifting and fun,” said Patricia Harle, of Hammond.

The 72-year-old cancer survivor was referring to the Empowerment Drumming and Music Wellness classes held at the Cancer Resource Centre in Munster. She has been an avid member of the program, because she and all of her sisters have had cancer and she has been a caregiver. Two of her sisters have died, and one has survived.

Empowerment Drumming and Music Wellness are taught by board-certified music therapist Kristen Bouwman to help cancer patients, survivors and caregivers release the stress of a cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. Empowerment Drumming takes place the third Monday of each month for one hour and Music Wellness occurs on the first and third Mondays of the month. Classes have ranged from two to eight participants. 

For Empowerment Drumming, Bouwman mostly uses drums and smaller percussion instruments.

“We begin with ‘drumming for intention.' I ask the participants what they’re drumming for that day. Is it peace, healing or understanding?” she explained. “We drum for the first 10 minutes of class and then discuss what we want to get out of the drumming session that day.”

Next, Bouwman drums a simple repetitive beat and the participants join in. Some drum louder and faster and some softer and slower. She encourages participants to close their eyes and think of their intention. This lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes, and then everyone discusses their experience.

“I refer to this stage as ‘verbal processing,’” Bouwman noted. “I ask drummers what they felt and if they ‘saw’ anything as they drummed. Some people say they visualize colors, which is interesting because I don’t ask them to provide color. Some will ‘see’ people they know or reminisce about something they’ve seen and done.”

Music for Wellness is a 12-session course, comprising six activities done  twice. They include a drum circle, where group members perform music together and respond to each other musically, and a discussion of song lyrics and what they mean to each individual, which is part of music psychotherapy.

“People enjoy talking about music,” Bouwman said. “It’s easier than talking to a psychotherapist.”

Body Music is another topic, which includes music and improvisational movement, using the body and voice to create sounds. During the Music and Visual Arts session, participants design an album cover that may tell their diagnosis or recovery story.

Guided Imagery with Music allows group members to relax.

“It’s a ‘guided daydream’ where each person focuses on what they see, think, hear and smell when they hear the music,” Bouwman said. “It’s completely individualized, so participants can ‘go’ wherever they want.”

The final theme is “Name That TV Tune,” which probes recreational music. The group is divided into two teams, game-show style, and identifies songs from popular television shows. Once identified, a discussion ensues about the characters in that TV show and is an opportunity to reminisce.

Bouwman said she has only one rule: “If it hurts you, hurts someone else or damages property, you’re doing it wrong. Otherwise be creative.”

She admits that both courses generate a mixed response from participants.

“Some love it and come every month, and some can’t make sense of it,” said Bouwman. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s an interesting experience and one of those things you have to be in the middle of to understand.”

Harle, the Hammond cancer survivor, is one of those who loves it. She’s made friends and connections from the classes and recommends them to others.

“Kristin has such a therapeutic personality, and she is wonderfully kind and upbeat,” Harle said. “I found the sessions to be pleasant, helpful for releasing stress and they’ve allowed me to learn in a way that’s very relaxed and enjoyable.”

Quinn Jergens, 56, of Griffith, agrees. She likes the classes and says Bouwman is very knowledgeable. Jergens has participated since the classes began about 14 years ago. When she started, she was a cancer patient and is now a survivor. Her sister, also a cancer patient, up until her death.

Jergens continues to take part in both Empowerment Drumming and Music for Wellness.

“As a cancer survivor, I live with the fear of recurrence every day,” Jergens said. “Drumming is a good coping mechanism and a great way to decompress and helps me to appreciate every day I wake up and see the sun.”