Over the Christmas break I completed my Oncology Massage course with Susan Findlay. The course was so much more than I imagined it would be – more wholesome, more holistic, more client-centred and it reminded me (again) of the importance of touch.
One in two of us will have cancer at some point in our lives, and it felt important for me to learn more about how best to help those affected by it.
A few people have asked me what oncology massage is so I thought I’d write down my thoughts as I begin my journey into this field of work.
What is oncology massage?
“Oncology massage is simply the adaptation of massage techniques with the consideration of the effects of cancer treatment.” ( ‘Oncology Massage – and integrative approach to cancer care’ by Janet Penny & Rebecca L Sturgeon)
Obviously the specifics are all about exactly which considerations need to be made and how best to work as part of a client’s primary care and oncology team.
Oncology massage won’t look the same for everyone.
How does it differ from sports massage?
With sports massage, most clients will come with a specific issue in their body. It might be restricting their movement, preventing them from playing a sport they love, causing pain in everyday life or might be related to an injury. Although I always take a whole-body approach, because everything is connected (obvs!!), the primary goal is to identify and ‘fix’ the area(s) of concern. [In truth, the massage therapist doesn’t ‘fix’ their client, but the work we do helps the client to move more comfortably and with greater awareness, and these improvements resolve the problem over time].
Clients may need 4-6 treatments initially to get them back to a level playing field, and from there they might have maintenance treatments as required. Over time, we might keep coming back to the same areas or change our approach as things within the body evolve. Either way, the goal for most sports massage clients is reduced pain & improved movement.
With oncology massage the focus is much more holistic because there is often nothing to ‘fix’. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be hugely beneficial!
Oncology massage is about the whole person (rather than their illness) and it is a non-medical interaction which can be hugely important given everything else they may be going through/have been through.
It offers a sense of connection, can improve relaxation & create a feeling of being seen/heard. It can be offered pre-, during and post-cancer treatments. It might be as simple as a hand massage for someone while they are having a chemotherapy treatment, or focus on specific areas of the body following surgery.
What are the potential benefits of oncology massage?
Each oncology massage will be truly unique to the client, taking into account the specifics of their diagnosis, the treatment being undertaken, the stage of their disease, their prognosis, etc. so it is hard to generalise about the benefits.
However, here is a list of potential benefits, that have been observed in research, into the effects of different massage modalities on cancer patients:
- relieves muscle soreness related to inactivity or cancer treatments
- stimulates lymphatic flow, reduces swelling and lymphedema
- increases range of movement and functional movement patterns
- promotes relaxation
- stimulates the digestive system (improves bowel and kidney function)
- improves sleep quality
- promotes alertness and mental clarity
- reduces pain
- reduces symptoms from chemotherapy and radiotherapy
- improves rate of recovery from anaesthesia
- stimulates wound healing
- improves scar tissue elasticity
- reduces time in hospital
- promotes a greater patient awareness about their body, which may also promote positive body image for the patient and an improved sense of connection with themself
- provides reassuring touch
- reduces anxiety and depression
- offers hope
- reduces feelings of isolation
- provides a distraction/time-out
- improves sense of control about making decisions for their body
Obviously, not everyone having an oncology massage will experience all of these benefits but can you imagine how good even one or two of these would feel when you’re going through possibly the darkest of days?
It’s worth saying that sports massage clients may also experience many of these benefits!
How can I help?
This course reminded me how important a role touch therapy can play for all of us so I will continue to offer sports and clinical massage as I already do. But as a result of my certification, I’m looking forward to being able to broaden my work to include oncology clients.
I think it is so important for us to feel whole, regardless of what we have been through. Inevitably it is the job of our medical team to remove or manage the disease and that is obviously the primary focus, but we are so much more than a damaged part. With oncology massage, perhaps I can be a small part of someone’s healing journey or offer support when healing is not an option.
Where appropriate, I will treat oncology clients from my home treatment room, but I also hope to get involved offering massage in a clinical oncology setting, where I can use my skills to help people when they are facing something that none of us ever want to face.