Many massage therapists tell me their hearts and hands are called to work with people with cancer. They want to provide comforting, safe touch during the important time of addressing that disease.
Imagining the discomforts of cancer treatment, or having experienced them firsthand from personal or familial experience, these therapists yearn to provide relief from cancer’s many side effects.
What We Don’t Know
As the literature on the benefits of massage for oncology patients grows, some massage therapists might consider oncology massage training. They might also ask the important question, Are there jobs in oncology massage?
I receive these inquiries frequently. There are several answers to the question about oncology massage jobs: “Yes, of course”; “No, not many”; and, “I don’t really know.”
As much as people in the massage profession would like to know which hospitals and cancer medical centers are hiring, what their requirements are and what they are paying, we don’t have real data.
Because of gaps in employment information in massage therapy, I am not able to provide firm numbers.
The Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care work group on hospital-based massage therapy might be able to eventually provide this information, but until then, no one is tracking employment in oncology massage or hospital settings to give us solid, encouraging numbers.
However, I increasingly hear of jobs in hospitals, clinics, spas focused on cancer care, and other settings where oncology massage training is needed.
I meet many massage therapists enrolling in oncology massage or hospital-based massage courses with the intention of gaining employment soon after course completion. Some of these therapists train with the support of a hospital, one that wants them to begin or join a cancer-and-massage program upon their return, already behind them.
Others are fortunate: After reaching out to hospitals, they are given the opportunity to launch a hospital-based massage program or work in a hospital setting shortly after they complete their education.
Other therapists volunteer, which can by turns be incredibly rewarding or a dead end that never leads to compensation. Still other massage therapists try for years to find a job or develop an oncology massage program at a local hospital, but they just can’t quite get things off the ground.
There can be many challenges in developing, maintaining and expanding a program. However, the emphasis on specialized oncology massage job creation ignores an important fact: The opportunity to provide oncology massage is right here, right now.
The American Cancer Society’s report, Cancer Facts & Figures 2014, projected more than 1,665,000 new cancer cases. This means whatever setting you work in a private practice, a franchise, clinic or spa–there are people with cancer and cancer histories walking through your door seeking massage.
The question is whether or not you are prepared to serve them with specialized care and skill.
Results of a randomized clinical trial, published in the journal PAIN in 2012, indicated massage therapy can significantly reduce pain, improve mood and increase muscle relaxation in cancer patients.
In another study published in Support Care Cancer in 2010, breast cancer patients who received two 30-minute sessions of massage therapy per week for five weeks showed significant reductions in depression and anxiety.
Additional studies have found massage lessens fatigue, bone pain and insomnia in cancer patients.
Imagine a client you have been working with for years receives a cancer diagnosis and wants to continue to receive massage from you. One minute you had the skills in your practice to work with her, and suddenly, post-diagnosis, you find yourself ill-equipped to do so.
Massage therapists need skills to adapt and be flexible for clients with complex medical conditions like cancer.
Some therapists learned these skills in basic massage training, but many therapists did not–or they work with a handful of guidelines rather than with comprehensive preparation.
Oncology massage is not just about working gently on everyone. It’s not just about getting a note from the client’s doctor. It’s not just about following a few guidelines.
Some of the skills needed are:
- Interviewing skills. The therapist needs to know what intake questions to ask, and what to do with the answers. (Sometimes we must ask the same key questions a few different ways to make sure we’ve got the answer spelled out clearly.)
- Reasoning skills. The therapist needs to know how to think clinically, reasoning through the client’s case to come up with a plan for the session.
- Communication skills. After the interview, the therapist needs to communicate a massage care plan with the client, and possibly with his physician.
- Hands-on skills. Precise modifications in pressure, stroke direction, speed and other massage components are needed, in order to tailor a session to the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.
These typically take in depth training and plenty of practice.
Once you are prepared to work safely and effectively with this population, there are several ways to communicate your specialty to current and potential clients:
- Tell your clients about your valuable new skill set. Most people know someone who might benefit from a massage during cancer and cancer treatment.
- Locate cancer support groups in your area. Contact the leaders and offer to present to the members. Bring educational materials and your business cards, and offer a demonstration.
- Volunteer massage at cancer fundraisers, such as walks, runs and other special events. Bring educational materials about oncology massage and your business cards.
- The Society for Oncology Massage maintains a searchable locator service of trained therapists for those seeking skilled massage in their area.
As with any new endeavor, it can take time to find ideal clients, and for ideal clients to find you; however, there is a large population of cancer patients in need of safe, comfort-oriented massage.
Specialization is often an important key to career success in massage. When the massage therapist carves out a niche, those clients who are a good fit for her work will find her. If you choose to specialize, oncology massage is a rewarding niche.
Clients often report symptom relief after massage therapy–and a massage session can also remind a cancer survivor that her body is still a good place, that she is more than just a person with cancer.
A massage therapist with the correct training and skills can complete a client’s circle of care.
Tracy Walton, L.M.T. specializes in massage therapy and cancer care, and is a dynamic voice for the power of touch. She is a researcher, writer and award-winning massage therapy educator. Learn about her many articles, her textbook, a home instruction program, and courses in oncology massage therapy, via her website.