When Massage Matters the Most

Hands on practice for oncology training classA new patient sits comfortably in her recliner receiving her initial chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.  As I handher the massage schedule I introduce myself as Toni Muirhead, an Oncology Massage Therapist for the outpatient cancer center. Like all patients she asks,  “What is the difference in your massage? My massage therapist wants to help me out and give me a light massage.”

I seize the opportunity to educate this new patient who will go on to educate others. All Florida Massage Therapists are nationally licensed.  But the entry level training at massage schools does not include oncology massage. This training is essential. Why? Chemotherapy, radiation treatment, surgery, and hormonal therapy all have unique long and short term side effects.  Oncology Massage Therapists understand the physical and emotional side effects of treatment and adapt a massage that fits survivors’ individual needs. Cancer treatment necessitates massage modifications that include site restrictions (staying away from ports, drains, and surgical incisions), pressure restrictions (no deep pressure), positional adaptations and the appropriate time to schedule a massage appointment during your chemotherapy schedule, so not to over tax you body during treatment .  As an Oncology Massage Therapist my goal is to decrease anxiety with a comfort oriented massage, help with neuropathy (pain in hands and feet) brought on by chemotherapy, and teach relaxation techniques. Recent research has shown that massage helps with the side effects of treatment; situational anxiety, insomnia, and pain..  Then I go on to explain that the American Cancer Society, Oncology Nursing Society and National Institute of Health all add “when done by qualified Massage Therapist.”
Any patient that has a history of regular massages hopes to continue massage during cancer treatment.  The confusing, muddle of information that is heard from friends, and even healthcare professions, “massage is good, no massage during treatment,” would confuse anyone. Patients need clear and concise information and this is part of the job of an Oncology Massage Therapist.
“I didn’t know a simple massage was so involved.” My new patient says.  “What about lymph edema, I am so afraid of getting that, more than the treatment itself.  I have heard so many horror stories and I have been told not to have anyone touch my arm.”
Oncology Massage Therapists are trained to understand how to massage you safely and also educate you about the risks and prevention of lymph edema.  It is a life time risk, and you deserve to have a great quality of life, so education is key to managing your arm. It’s important for you to know that just as the nurses have told you no blood pressure or needle stick on the arm that had nodes removed, please make sure that anyone that massages you knows how to give you a safe massage, once you leave the treatment center. So always remember to ask your massage therapist:
1. I have had nodes removed; do you know how to safely massage my arm?
2. I am in cancer treatment; do you have special training in oncology massage?
3. I have lymph edema, do you know how to give me a safe massage?
I smile at my new survivor. Questioning is the most important skill I want her to learn.
-Toni Muirhead, LMT