The power of touch through massage has been proven to reduce stress, depression, and pain while bringing peace and enjoyment to people dealing with debilitating cancer or end-of-life hospice care.
Loved ones are often leery about touching someone who is in pain for fear of hurting them. “Being sick can be a challenging emotional experience,” said Lisa Marie Oakes, CMT, a licensed massage therapist in San Diego trained in oncology massage and a volunteer with the Elizabeth Hospice.
In some ways, a massage therapist may be the only nonmedical person to gently touch older or sick patients in a soothing way that doesn’t make them feel guilty, humiliated or prodded, she said.
“The benefits of touch are so amazing. Just to connect with people is so rewarding, to make them feel good and give them some relief.”
Some popular massage methods for people with cancer or in pain include Reiki, a light or non-touching therapy, light effleurage, or therapeutic holding, a way of gently touching specific comfort areas such as the shoulders and head that make patients less agitated, Oakes said.
Specialized training in oncology massage teaches how to adapt massage techniques to safely address and potentially reduce the side effects of cancer and its various treatments, according to the Society for Oncology Massage.
Each patient is unique, but therapists should consider massage modifications through positioning, pressure, pace or site considerations related to concerns such as medical devices, side effects of drug treatments, surgery or radiation, compromised lymph nodes or blood counts, the society reports.
The American Cancer Society recommends patients discuss complementary or alternative treatment with their oncologist or health care team. And if receiving radiation therapy, avoid massage in the treatment area as well as in any red, raw, tender, or swollen areas.
In oncology massage, the speed and pressure are very low, Oakes said. “We are not trying to increase the circulation in that area.”
The same is true in hospice care. Increasing the circulation through deep tissue massage can worsen the side effects of medicine and may make a frail or ill patient feel sick, like after a long soak in a hot tub, she said. Instead, gentle touch can cause pain relief, bring comfort and reduce stress.
Communication skills are also essential for massage therapists. “We do not give people medical advice, just go in and be an open listener.”
Therapists should dress professionally and put aside their personal preferences, Oakes said. For instance, they shouldn’t use harsh scents like incense or patchouli. “We use aromatherapy through Elizabeth Hospice.” Those scents may include lavender, rose or chamomile. “You should keep the client’s needs in front of you.”
Simple techniques such as rubbing lotion on a patient’s hands brings them comfort and provides an opportunity to talk, said Oakes, who often teaches caregivers of hospice patients how to provide easy hand massages.
Interested in hearing more? Learn skills like these and more in our hands-on massage therapy continuing education class: Oncology Massage & Hospice Touch Therapy. This course will open your eyes to the power of massage and touch therapy for oncology and hospice patients, and teach you the appropriate techniques, applications, and communication skills.