Oncology Massage Is More Than Just a Mix of Massage Techniques…
By Tracy Walton
When I began seeing clients with cancer and post-treatment, there were few guidelines for the work we were doing. There was only a small amount of direction in the massage literature. It was the early 1990’s, and we were years away from using the term “oncology massage therapy (OMT).” But our clients wanted massage therapy. They wanted it during treatment, post-treatment, at end of life, and while waiting for treatment to start.
So we figured out how to give it to them.
With the input of their cancer care providers, massage therapists practiced cautiously. We invented the work as we went along.
We had good reasons for that caution. Massage therapists and clients told numerous stories of massage gone wrong in people with cancer—especially during treatment. Clients told of us of being bruised or getting sick after massage. We saw that massage, incorrectly applied, could aggravate lymphedema, a chronic, painful, and disfiguring condition that can follow lymph node removal or radiation.
We even have heard, since, of fracture following inappropriate massage pressure in clients whose bones were weakened by cancer spread.
Working Lightly is Not Enough
We learned that it requires more than a light approach to avoid these problems. Oncology massage therapy amounts to much more than simply working gently. We are careful with pressure, yes, but we are also careful with joint movement, positioning, and in some cases, even the direction of our strokes.
Nanci Newton, an OMT instructor and therapist of 20 years, observes, “Oncology massage therapy is not just a collection of lighter techniques. It’s also mindful and thoughtful intake questions. Knowing what you are looking for from a client, why you ask each question, and how you are going to use the answers.”
Cindy Gillan, another OMT instructor on our team, observes, “Oncology massage therapy takes a mix of skills, not just a list of precautions, in order to work safely. Interview skills as well as hands-on skills. Communicating sensitively with the client. Thinking skills, too – once you have thought through the whole process, you have the confidence to implement the hands-on approaches with the client.”
That confidence has allowed us to expand our focus. In OMT, we’re moving beyond the issue of simply practicing safely. Now we are more focused on outcomes – the benefits of the work.
How Does Massage Help in Cancer Care?
Possible benefits of massage include relief from “The Big Five”–common symptoms and side effects in cancer care. Most people, without even looking at the list below, can name the big five:
Research suggests massage therapy can help with these common problems in cancer care.
Some of the strongest research support for the relief of pain and anxiety. On top of that, clients tell us they sleep better with massage therapy, and better sleep helps ease many other side effects and symptoms.
It helps people cope.
Clients feel less isolated. They tell us they are glad to have something to look forward to each week.
Clients Get Relief – Then Rebook
By shifting our focus, from avoiding harm to actually helping symptoms, we offer a real, solution-focused service. Oncology massage therapy takes its place as a specialty within therapeutic massage.
Nanci puts it this way: “Offering this kind of care, I’ve helped many clients with their symptoms. People with pain from bone or vital organ involvement. People with breathing problems. People with severe swelling or uncomfortable medical devices. It takes time and skill, but it’s effective. It brings clients back for more.”
What Can MTs Learn from Oncology Massage Therapy Training?
Cindy has taught OMT for 10 years. About the class, she says, “Students learn to organize a lot of health information. We give them tools to pull the information together and sort through it, make their decisions, and communicate well with their clients. Most importantly, once the safety questions are resolved, they can put them aside and be fully present for the client.”
In class, students learn gentle pressure, but with great contact so the client is less likely to miss the deeper pressure they were expecting to get. Students practice protocols for a variety of cancer presentations, from robust to frail. They practice using in-depth case studies. And a favorite of students is the positioning used to help clients get out of pain.”
From good OMT training, a massage therapist learns how to confidently create a space for the client, and in that space, the massage therapist can relax, as well.”
Oncology Massage Offered at TLC
If you want to use your MT skills to help clients with cancer, join us in our next 4-day intensive oncology massage therapy training at TLC. You will gain the skills and confidence you need in order to serve a large and appreciative population of clients. With this foundation, there are many opportunities to build your practice in new and exciting ways.
The Lauterstein-Conway Massage School is thrilled to be holding this workshop on January 24-27, 2019. This course comes with a Certificate of Completion. “Oncology Massage Therapy: Caring for Clients with Cancer” offered by the staff of Tracy Walton & Associates. Learn more.