August 2011 Convention
Charlotte, NC

Breast Cancer and the Flute: Opening a Dialogue

Presenters for this important session, all survivors of breast cancer, were Katherine Borst Jones, flute professor at Ohio State University; Tamara Kagy, principal flutist of the Firelands Symphony Orchestra and teacher at Terra State Community College in Ohio; and Karen Hansen, a flutist in Oregon. All panelists spoke about their own experiences and gave advice regarding detection, interacting with physicians, treatment, reconstruction, and recovery. They addressed concerns specific to flutists such as breathing, muscle use, and pain. Fortunately, breast cancer carries less of a stigma now than it used to do, and such open discussions are now possible.

left to right: Tamara Kagy, Katherine Borst Jones, Karen Hansen

photo by Brian Covington

When Hansen found out she had cancer, she asked herself, “Will I be able to play my flute again? ” She had bilateral mastectomies. Her desire to keep playing affected her choice of reconstructive surgery. She stressed the importance of making physical therapists and doctors understand what we do. Throughout the entire process, even when she found it impossible to practice, she played the headjoint alone or practiced tonguing without the flute.

Kagy, too, had bilateral mastectomies and elected not to have reconstruction, but formulated her own recovery strategy that has resulted in a full return to flute playing. She needed to coax her muscles into the stretch needed for correct flute posture and discovered that physicians and therapists need to understand their patient’s needs in designing a restorative therapy. A flutist must be an advocate for her own needs.

Borst Jones stressed the importance of early detection, being proactive, and taking things into your own hands. She also explained thoroughly to her doctors that she was a flutist, and this affected her choice of treatments. Based on her experience, she strongly suggested that flutists dealing with breast cancer consider clinical trials, as new methods of treatment are developing. Borst Jones played the flute during her treatments, and other patients appreciated this. She noted that fatigue makes it hard to play. She underscored the importance of support from family, friends, colleagues, and students and recommended the website Caring Bridge, which allows one to write a journal and have people respond.

The panel noted that the NFA Performance Health Care Committee intends to post resources on the NFA website, including links to medical sites and articles. Committee chair Lea Pearson also hopes to follow up on the topic in the future, as she has noted a great deal of interest.

—Leonard Garrison