Massage therapist Marcia Patterson, LMT, greets patients undergoing cancer treatment with a comforting lilt in her voice and a big smile—because not every cancer patient is keen on the idea of getting a massage, says the coordinator of the oncology massage program at University of Florida Health Jacksonville.
“They’re people who are afraid of a lot of things because they’ve been hurt and prodded,” she says.
Patterson will ease such patients into it. Sometimes she’ll start by gently taking a patient’s hand and asking, like she’s your best girlfriend, “Who does your nails?”
“I have some stuff that’ll help them look a little better and feel a little better,” she’ll say.
“Really?” her patient replies. “I’ve never had someone work on my hands before.”
Then Patterson begins working her magic, softly massaging her patient’s fingers and palms, showing them how gently she’ll touch them and how good they’ll feel as result. As her clients relax, they talk to her.
“They end up talking a lot. Sometimes about what they’re going through,” she says. “We do a lot of listening.”
A Mission of Oncology Massage
Patterson has worked in various roles at UF Health Jacksonville, a 695-bed, nonprofit medical center. But after she became a licensed massage therapist with her own private practice, it became her mission to bring oncology massage and other integrative therapies to the cancer patients at the hospital where she has worked for over 30 years.
As with her cancer patients, she had to slowly ease the staff at the hospital into accepting the good that massage therapy and other integrative therapies can do for patients.
She started giving free hand-and-chair massages to staff at the hospital and offered educational presentations. Over time, more and more hospital staff came around.
She was given the go-ahead to begin a massage program for patients, but faced the issue of funding. Then one day, while participating in a continuing education program, she heard about Angie’s Spa.
When Angie Levy died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 36 in 2007, she had spent much of the previous nine years trying to live as normal a life as she could while fighting for her life.
For Angie, that meant spending time with those she loved, pursuing an education and her career, supporting charities she believed in and, once in a while, indulging in small pleasures, such as a manicure or massage.
After her death, Angie’s friends and family wanted to do something to honor her memory. The conventional option would be a run or walk in her memory, but Angie’s friends and family wanted to do something as unique as Angie was.
“Angie used to say, going through chemo, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to either have a manicure or a massage while you’re getting chemo?’ So, this idea of Angie’s Spa came about,” says Kathleen Conner, a three-time cancer survivor and president of Angie’s Spa, the nonprofit created in Angie’s memory.
Angie’s Spa is not a brick-and-mortar spa. It’s a charity that provides grants to cancer treatment programs throughout the U.S. to offer cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation or invasive surgery free therapeutic integrative services, such as oncology massage, reiki and acupuncture.
The all-volunteer nonprofit began operating in 2008, offering one grant to Northridge Medical Center in California. Last September, the organization offered grants totaling $175,000 to nine facilities in eight states.
Funding primarily comes through individual donations raised through annual fundraisers, outreach from the organization and word of mouth, says Conner.
The opportunity to apply for a grant from Angie’s Spa is by invitation only, Conner says.
Invitees are programs that have expressed an interest and that share the nonprofit’s mission. Those programs that already offer integrative therapies are of particular interest to Angie’s Spa’s board because those programs are not starting from scratch; however, the board is happy to work with cancer centers seeking to begin free oncology massage programs, like they did with UF Health Jacksonville.
“When you’re us—raising this money and working so hard to do it—when the grant year starts, (we) want the patients to be seen,” Conner says.
More than Pampering
When Angie’s Spa first started offering grants to offer free massage therapy to cancer patients, they, like Patterson at UF Health Jacksonville, had to do some convincing of medical staff that it and other integrative therapies, have concrete benefits for cancer patients, says Conner.
“My own doctor said, ‘People don’t need massage, we need a cure for cancer,’” she says. “But now we have the oncologists putting massage … as part of the patients’ [treatment] protocol.”
Research studies have indicated that massage therapy can reduce symptoms such as pain, stress, nausea, fatigue and depression.
Patients who have benefitted from Angie’s Spa free therapies while undergoing treatment have written to the organization about their experiences, Conner says.
One woman with neck cancer who received acupuncture following surgery was able to avoid needing a feeding tube and one mother with an aggressive form of breast cancer who had a hard time walking was able to walk again and regain some independence after acupuncture and massage.
“It really made me think,” says Conner. “Walking. It’s helping her walk better. Something we all take for granted.”
Many of the cancer patients helped by the therapies supported by Angie’s Spa’s grants are from underserved communities and have never experienced massage or would think they would ever be able to get a massage, says massage therapist Patterson.
And in many cases, they are patients in advanced stages of cancer, facing the end of their lives.
One of the very first patients Patterson gave massage to after receiving the first Angie’s Spa grant died the next day. Patterson was unnerved, but the first medical director of the program, Mark McIntosh, MD, assured her that her touch had given the patient permission to relax and move peacefully to the next part of the journey.
“That really helped point the way,” she says. “Sometimes–many times–that’s what we do, surround the patient with love and support so that their body, their spirit, does what it needs to do.”
About the Author
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, and her articles include “Software Engineer Turned MT Shares the Secrets of Corporate Massage Success,” “Support Your Clients Following Disastrous Events” and ”Meet the Massage Therapists Who Work—and Travel—With AIDS/Lifecycle Riders.”
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