In 2017, 1,688,000 new cancer cases are anticipated in the U.S., with more than 600,000 deaths projected from the disease, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society, Cancer statistics, 2017.
Massage therapy can play a role in pain-and-stress relief—and since 2011, Oncology Massage Alliancevolunteers have done just that for 9,000 cancer patients throughout Oregon and Texas.
Often, new patients don’t want to be touched during radiation or chemotherapy treatment, but once they see fellow patients relaxing and enjoying a free oncology massage, they, too, usually want one, said massage therapist Geri Ruane, L.M.T., the Oncology Massage Alliance’s director of operations.
Once, Ruane said, she visited an infusion room where all the patients were particularly chatty. By the time she finished her free hand-and-foot massages, silence filled the room.
All the patients had fallen asleep.
“You could hear a pin drop,” recalled the certified oncology and lymphedema therapist. “It was the funniest thing. I thought, ‘I’ve been here.’”
The Austin, Texas-based nonprofit was founded by four massage therapists—Wendy Kamasaki, Gail Bailey, Colleen Ryan and Ruane—who met while volunteering free massages at local infusion cancer centers.
After seeing the benefits massage provided patients, the women wanted to encourage other therapists to volunteer, too.
“No charge and no strings attached … it’s an incredibly wonderful gift that we get to share with that person,” said Gail Bailey, OMA’s executive director. “That’s by far the best [part of OMA].”
The nonprofit has 30 volunteers throughout Texas and Oregon. While volunteer practitioners go into the actual infusion rooms for massage, support therapists are not required to do so and can help instead with community outreach.
All volunteers must be massage therapists trained in the specialty of oncology massage.
“Oncology massage therapy is a type of massage that is specific to a person who is living with cancer and for those who have had a history of cancer,” states the OMA website. “This comfort-oriented massage is tailored for each individual, from those in active treatment to those in recovery or survivorship, as well as for those at the end of life.”
Neuropathy is common among cancer patients, said Ruane. Sometimes, just a human touch of gently cradling a foot is enough to make a patient sigh with relief.
Ruane recalled the story of a woman who hadn’t let anyone touch her feet in years. After a little coaxing, the cancer patient allowed Ruane to offer a foot massage.
“I could feel her relax in the chair,” Ruane said.
As Ruane started on the second foot, the patient told her, “‘You know, I’ve had neuropathy for three years. I’ve had no one touch my feet, and I think that [not touching them] was the wrong thing to do.’”
The patient, now in her 70s, started seeing Ruane privately. After many sessions, the woman is now stable enough on her feet to play golf with her grandson, a goal she had from the beginning of massage therapy.
Recent studies have also concluded that massage is effective for cancer patients with neuropathy.
The National Cancer Institute recently uncovered that Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (CIPN) is one reason cancer patients often stop treatment early. Fortunately, researchers recently reported at a Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium that massage therapy can ease symptoms as well as improve quality of life.
Not only do patients feel the benefits, medical staff in cancer treatment centers claim the advantages of oncology massage are quite obvious.
“The massage therapy has been amazing for people,” said Theresa Kennedy, an oncology-certified nurse in Medford, Oregon, who works with OMA volunteers.
“Talk about turning a treatment into a relaxing experience for someone,” she added. “[Massage] gives them something to look forward to on a day that’s not necessarily exciting.”
Kennedy said she has seen the sparkle in patients’ eyes when they know OMA volunteers are visiting for the day.
“I can’t think of a more enriching experience,” said Kennedy. “It’s a blessing to the patients.”
The volunteers, too, find the work to be rewarding.
“My favorite part of this work is meeting the many wonderful patients of all ages and walks of life,” said Lesley Moehle, L.M.T., C.L.T., who practices in Oregon.
“I find great satisfaction in the possibility of easing some symptoms, including short-term pain relief and reduced anxiety during this very challenging time in their lives,” Moehle added.
Another volunteer, Lisa Johnston, started volunteering in 2013, helping the executive director establish an OMA presence in Medford. At first, volunteers worked at events like local Relay for Life races to spread the word.
Now, four therapists including Johnston regularly work at the Noel Lesley Infusion Room at Providence Cancer Center.
“I believe that touch and compassionate presence are amazingly powerful, and that I receive as much as I give in this work,” said Johnston. “I have seen even these short massage sessions alleviate pain, reduce swelling, calm nervousness, and warm and lubricate joints.”
Some patients schedule appointments around when they know OMA volunteers will be present, which is rewarding, Johnston said.
“It’s lovely to see and hear a patient relaxing and feeling comforted, and to know you’ve given them a new tool for dealing with stress and pain,” she said.
Talla Kisa Mitchell, 40, has spent the last 10 years battling cancer; the diagnosis came as HPV mutative cervical cancer. After having a tumor surgically removed, Mitchell refused further surgeries and started researching complementary therapies.
Like most cancer patients, radiation treatment had left her with deep scarring, nerve damage and neuropathy down her left leg.
After finding a massage therapist willing to work with her, Mitchell discovered both emotional and physical relief. She said she noticed “huge improvement in the radiation burns on my hips, belly and thighs” after two years of working with a massage therapist twice weekly.
While Mitchell recently had another setback—the cancer came back in her lungs as stage IV—her outlook on how massage heals depression and cancer remains the same.
Upon recently meeting OMA’s executive director in the infusion room at Providence Cancer Center, Mitchell cried.
“Not only were the doctors no longer saying that massage was dangerous, they were actually welcoming a massage therapist to come into the infusion room to help us,” said Mitchell. “I have seen it raise my white blood cell count, help me to heal scars, lift my mood and get rid of side effects.”
During weekly massage sessions provided by Bailey, Mitchell said her neuropathy effects from chemotherapy never lasted very long. Even though she has finished treatment and had to say goodbye to OMA volunteers, Mitchell still receives weekly massages.
“Massage has been an integral part of my whole journey, and continues to be a huge part of my healing and wellbeing,” said Mitchell. “To me, massage should be part of the treatment protocol, not just an option.”
Seraine Page is an award-winning journalist based out of the Seattle area. She enjoys writing about health and wellness. Her work has been published in the Kitsap Sun, Bainbridge Island Review, Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal, Bremerton Patriot and others. She wrote “Suffering in Silence: Migrant Farmworkers Need Massage” and “U.S. Veterans’ PTSD Helped with Massage,” among other articles, for MASSAGE Magazine.