Volunteer pianists ease the pain at Hamilton cancer centre

Eight years ago, Bruce McDonald got cancer treatments at the Juravinski Cancer Centre. He's come back every Tuesday since then to play the piano.

77-year-old cancer survivor helps others face pain with music

Bruce McDonald plays his song Children at Christmas

10 years ago
Duration 2:21
Bruce McDonald plays his song Children at Christmas at the Juravinski Cancer Centre

The Juravinski Cancer Centre isn’t a place most would associate with music. But Bruce McDonald does.

The 77-year-old cancer survivor treks to the centre with an armful of music books every Tuesday, playing a selection of positive songs on the atrium piano. His favourite songs are Over the Rainbow and When You Wish Upon a Star.

“You’re here to try to eliminate all the negatives in your body,” said McDonald. “I’m not a doctor, but I think it’s very important to think positively and not come in here thinking you’re going to die.”

McDonald is one of a handful of volunteers who play the piano to ease the mood for patients visiting the centre. A retired piano tuner, McDonald became a volunteer in 2006 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the same illness that killed his brother John in 2001.

If you think about why you’re here, you think of cancer and you think you could die...But with the music, I had something to think about.- Bruce McDonald

His second day of radiation, he noticed the piano. He hovered around it, not wanting to disrupt order by playing it. The third day, he found a volunteer playing, and he asked the woman if he could play it while she went for coffee.

For the next seven weeks, he visited the centre for radiation, and every day, he played the piano.

“It gave me something to think about besides why I was here,” he said.

“If you think about why you’re here, you think of cancer and you think you could die. Because of the experience with my brother, I didn’t know how much longer I had. But with the music, I had something to think about.”

It seems to work that way for patients who listen too, said Dr. Gord Okawara, who co-ordinates the program with his administrative assistant Anna Krpan. The piano is located at the base of the five-storey atrium, next to the coffee shop. Staff and visitors chat at tables nearby. Every note from the piano drifts upward through the atrium to all levels of the centre.

Five floors of listeners

"You never know who’s listening,” said Okawara, who is also a musician. “You can never see your total audience because it goes up so high. You just never know who you touch with your music.”

At any given time, there is a roster of 10 to 20 volunteers who play at the atrium, he said. Some are staff. Others are community members and cancer survivors. 

“Some initiatives are difficult to keep going," he said, "but this seems to have a life of its own.”

McDonald looks forward to it every week. He remembers what cancer treatment was like for him, when he was weak and fearful and not knowing if he’d live. Each day he plays, people approach him and thank him.

“When I’m playing, there’s something filling this room other than conversation,” he said. “I think it’s good for them. It’s good for me. That’s why I come in here.”