- By Ginny Vickers
I've wanted to write a blog about cancer and integrative therapies. But what was holding me back was trying to figure out what to write about first, since there's so much information I want to share.
So here I am - ready to share my passion for oncology massage, which truly feels like my mission. In my blog posts I’ll talk about what originally led me to this work, what happens when one receives a cancer diagnosis, cancer and its side effects, living with cancer, end of life care, care giver support, research supporting oncology massage, and healing versus curing...
But where I want to begin is to talk about “healing versus curing." I bear witness to this all the time. I see it here at work,. I see it with my patients in hospice and I see it with the kids at Tufts Floating Hospital.
Let's face it, when one receives a cancer diagnosis, it's a game changer. After the initial shock, when the dust begins to settle, a cure is what one aims for. And because we are at an unprecedented precipice in cancer treatment (i.e. immunotherapy), this is a real possibility in many scenarios.
I've seen people "cured" - or more accurately the term NED (no evidence of disease) is used. My brother is one such medical miracle; over 10 years now remission from stage 4 metastatic melanoma. His oncologist is still scratching his head, albeit with a huge smile...
Some cancers of the blood are deemed curable, in particular ALL (the most common form of leukemia in children), with a very high survival rate. In the short time I've been working in the pediatric hematology/oncology clinic at Tufts, I see this extraordinary chain of events played out weekly.
Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy - all lifesaving - come at a cost. The stories I hear from my patients and clients all share a similar theme; their bodies are not the same. Yet oncology massage can bring bodies to a place where they move easier due to an increased range of motion, it can soften tissues that are rigid and scarred, and it can decrease pain and help to relive feelings of anxiety. It can indeed begin to change the body. These bodies and minds eventually come to accept this as their new normal...and this can be called "healing."
The simple and timeless act of "laying of hands"on another, is for me what this is all about and where the healing occurs. There is something so profoundly sacred in this exchange. It does not need to be proven nor researched. I trust this process and I am beyond fortunate and humbled to call this my work.
"Touch was never meant to be a luxury. It is a basic human need. It is an action that validates life and gives hope both to the receiver and the giver." ~ Irene Smith
-by Virginia Vickers
How does one know what their path is in life? I thought I knew mine. I was certain that I did. What I never completely understood is that a path can twist and turn. It is seldom straight nor is it seldom smooth. And many times - even when you think you are on the right one - you are led on an altogether unexpectedly different one.
And this is where my story begins. My brother was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma almost 12 years ago. The news came to us on a stunningly beautiful July day when life was simple and I thought I had it all figured out. I did what everyone tells you NOT to do. I Googled it. What I read seemed to be a death sentence. He was away on vacation at the time and had no access to a computer while I searched every website imaginable. As a result, I spiraled into panic and became a quasi-expert in mucosal melanoma by the time he returned home.
What ensued over the following years can only be described as a life altering journey. Quite simply, my path was rerouted. I went from being an at-home mom with five children, to being a constant fixture at my brother's side at Dana Farber.
Doctor appointments, scans, surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, follow ups, car rides and conversation; REPEAT. And what needs to be noted here because my brother is grace and courage personified, is that there was almost always laughter - his.
As I was going through this experience, I decided that when my youngest child got to first grade, I would then give part of myself to Dana Farber and volunteer in some capacity there. That day finally came in the fall of 2012. I arrived at my interview and told the volunteer coordinator that I wanted a very "hands on" position. I love people. I love to physically touch people and to be touched. She looked at me and laughed and said that she had that exact position. It is called the "Hands - On Program" and it is implemented by the Zakim Center which is the integrative therapies center at Dana Farber. It simply is training volunteers to massage patient’s hands while they are receiving chemotherapy.
I was thrilled; this was exactly what I didn't know I was looking for. I poured myself into it and loved every minute of my Wednesday afternoons at Dana Farber. All the while, my brother was in remission. My children loved to wish me a great day on these days because they were aware of how happy and privileged I felt to be going there. And again, somewhere along the way my path took yet another turn.
Many of the patients whom I saw each week would assume I was a massage therapist. I would laugh and correct them and tell them no. Others still would ask me questions about massage therapy and cancer that I was obviously not qualified to answer, as well as share personal stories of their own experiences with it.
All the signs were in front of me and couldn't be ignored. I was led to this path. I did not seek it out. It was not going to be easy. There were friends and family who couldn't understand what I was going to do. Massage school? At 49 years old? I told them the truth. I never expected this to happen. I thought I knew my way. We don't - none of us.
I was given a gift. I knew that I was meant to do this. I realized that all of a sudden the only thing that made sense was that I wanted to pursue a career in Oncology Massage. I wanted this with every ounce of my being. I want to be able to physically touch these individuals. I want them to feel a little better and a lot less alone. People like my brother, who on a stunningly beautiful summer's day got a phone call that changed his life, and mine.
Many years have passed since. My brother continues to be in a complete remission; this is miraculous. I continue to love my journey and those remarkable clients I’ve had the privilege and honor of walking with.
I love this quote -
“By touching a body, we touch every event it has experienced. For a few brief moments we hold all of a client's stories in our hands. We witness someone's experience of their own flesh, through some of the most powerful means possible: the contact of our hands, the acceptance of the body without judgment, and the occasional listening ear. With these gestures we reach across the isolation of the human experience and hold another person's legend. In massage therapy, we show up and ask, in so many ways, what it is like to be another human being. In doing so, we build a bridge that may heal us both.” Tracy Walton, "The Health History of a Human Being," Massage Therapy Journal, Winter 1999.
I have been providing Oncology Massage on the South Shore for the past 6 years. I also work with pediatric patients at Tufts Floating Hospital as well as doing Hospice work throughout the greater Boston area.
I am very excited to be working in Boston, closer to the hospitals, which will allow me to see clients whom otherwise would not be able to make the trip to the South Shore.
If you have any questions about oncology care, treatment plans or would like to make an appointment for a consultation, please feel free to message me here.
Thank you and I look forward to meeting you.
I have just returned from certification training in full chest and breast massage on the west coast and the timing was interesting as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Although this work is not specific to breast cancer patients or breast cancer survivors, there are a number of physical and psychological benefits to those either facing this disease, going through it and recovering from it. Some of which I have discussed here.
During our training, we were fortunate to have among us cancer patients and survivors, including women who have undergone a partial lumpectomy, a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, enhancement and breast reduction.
If anyone needs and deserves the healing, caring touch of massage, it is women living with breast cancer, whether before, during or post-treatment. Massage and touch at any stage of breast cancer will take a woman to another place than her disease. Massage can assist her throughout her entire journey, from diagnosis to recovery. It can be difficult for the patient to deal with family issues, body image, finances, friends and do-gooders.
Massage can help.
When asked what massage does for them, clients have replied with comments such as:
Massage therapy has been shown to offer a number of benefits for breast cancer patients. Performed by a skilled and qualified therapist, the immediate benefits of massage therapy include reduced stress and anxiety. Long-term massage effects include reduced depression and hostility and increased serotonin values, .
Massage can also enhance one's feeling of well-being. It can stimulate the nerve endings in the skin, release endorphins (the feel good hormone) and inhibit the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.
In a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, the Touch Research Institute found that massage therapy reduced anxiety and depression. It also improved immune function, including increased NK cell number in breast cancer patients. Additionally, breast cancer patients have improved immune functions following massage therapy.
Another study* found that therapeutic massage reduced cancer pain perception by an average of 60 percent, decreased anxiety by 24 percent and enhanced relaxation by 58 percent. A Touch Research Institute study involving 20 children with leukemia found that daily massages by their parents increased the children's white blood cell and neutrophil counts (neutrophils form a primary defense against bacterial infection).
Why Mastectomy Massage?
The benefits of mastectomy massage are numerous. The therapist's intentions and the quality of touch provided can make a world of difference to a client who has recently experienced a variety of invasive and painful tests and procedures. The intention is not to "fix" the client, but to provide love, nurturing, relaxation and quality of life.
Massage can relieve post-operative pain and edema, and promote the removal of toxins as it assists in the flow of lymph, blood and oxygen. Over time, clients will experience increased range of motion, reduced scar tissue, restored feeling and sensation by stimulating nerve endings, an improved body image and may become more aware and reconnected to themselves. Aside from massage generally promoting better health and overall well-being, it just feels good!
Can Massage Spread Cancer?
The concern that increasing circulation via massage will cause the spread of cancer is unfounded. Cancer can spread with little or no activity, such as sleeping, breathing, eating, walking, etc. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that gentle, light or compassionate touch can be administered safely and effectively, provided that no direct pressure or massage is applied to the traumatized area affected by disease.
Light massage may actually have a protective effect, as it keeps the blood and lymph circulating. Touch may help prevent tumor proliferation, as it reduces the body's levels of glucocorticoids and cortisol & hormonal measurements of the body's stress levels. Conversely, high levels of these substances in the body have been linked to tumor growth.
Massage therapy does not treat cancer. But it can have a profound impact on a patient's well being. If you are facing breast cancer, talk to your doctor about seeking massage therapy and then book an appointment to begin your journey of healing and self care.
- with aloha
I write about things that I myself need to be mindful of. ways in which I would like to improve. It is not from the perspective of preaching - but rather writing helps me work out what I myself need to do - we are all in this together.