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Xerlan Deery, LMT, BCTMB, is a massage therapist who works as an independent contractor at Paoli Hospital in Paoli, Pennsylvania. It’s one of several hospitals that comprise Main Line Health.

Deery first worked as a massage therapist in a hospital in 1990. She sat down with MASSAGE Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Karen Menehan, to discuss her work with oncology patients at the hospital.

Xerlan Derry smiles
Xerlan Deery

Karen Menehan: In your work at the hospital, could you tell us what massage sessions might involve, and with what conditions patients present?

Xerlan Deery: It’s usually adults, but adults of all ages, and there is a wide variety of cancers, so I’m working with different cancers throughout the day.

We also have LGBTQ-inclusive cancer care, and we also have senior cancer care. It’s not unusual to have someone there that is pregnant. Pregnant people get cancer. It happens. It’s a very diverse group of people. And I may have to use a translator sometimes. So, you know, in that respect, it ends up being really different.

KM: How many patients might you see in a typical day?

XD: In a half day, in the infusion rooms, the max I’ve ever seen has been 14, and that’s been a big squeeze.

KM: How long do sessions typically last?

XD: We don’t have a specific time, because these people are medically involved. They’re doing something. They have radiation, they’re post-op [or] they’re in chemotherapy.

In fact, the best thing that can happen for me is, in 10 to 15 minutes, to have them go, “Look what you did,” and, you know, the swelling’s down, or they can move something again, or they say, “Gosh, I’m me again.”

Honestly, their body’s so busy doing everything else to get them well, that a one-hour, hot-stone, deep-tissue’s going to knock them in the dirt. It’s going to just lay them out for days, and could actually delay [their recovery] or cause them more pain.

KM: It sounds like you need to do more in less time.

XD: Yes. We need to do more in less time. A lot of people think, “Oh, it’s cancer. You just go lighter.” No, not so much. You do go lighter, but’s very specific. It’s very intentional.

KM: Will you tell us about that intentionality?

XD: I’m working specifically with people who may have had radiation, and they’ve been there every day for 26 days, in a very weird position. I call it the deconstructed plank—and they have to do this. I’m not working the radiation area. I’m working the place they had to twist every day for 10 minutes. That ends up being almost more like a sports massage, because I just need to loosen this area up so they can get through the process again.

We work with so many different side effects, and the pain, and neuropathy. Fatigue is huge. Huge. Insomnia. I don’t work that much with nausea, because the nausea thing is pretty well taken care of with drugs.

The thing that is very surprising is the comorbidities. So, it’s not just cancer. They may have had a knee replacement a month ago, or they may also have arthritis, or five other things.

KM: Many massage therapists might think that with someone presenting with so many conditions, massage could be contraindicated.

XD: Well, contraindications do not mean no, N-O. Contraindications mean K-N-O-W, as in you better know. You better know if you can, or if you can, how, or if this is one that you should say, “Hmm, maybe not.”

KM: I assume you’re massaging with the client in a chair or bed, correct?

XD: If it’s in the chemotherapy infusion center, they’re in a chemotherapy chair. If it’s with radiation patients, I can use a exam room, or sometimes I use a desk-topper. That’s the easiest to use in a hospital environment, because then I can put it on one of the lunch trays, put the lock down, and put the lunch tray at the absolute perfect height. I work with people in hospital beds as well.

KM: How are patients told about, or guided to, massage?

XD: The doctors will tell them or their nurse navigator will tell them, “By the way, when you’re here, you can get a massage.”

If someone’s coming in and they’re getting a radiation session treatment, and the radiation nurse says, “Hey, they could really use you today,” they’re only going to be there for a short period of time, so I’m going to endeavor to make sure I get down there during that time, and get them before or after that process.

If they’re in there for chemotherapy, they could be there from two to six hours—but during that time they may need to meet with the social worker or the doctor, or they may have to have some labs, and I can’t be in there at those times.

KM: Do patients tend to understand what medical massage involves?

XD: I never tell anyone I do medical massage. I tell people we should be more like plumbers, because everybody knows when they need a plumber, and they always know the plumber can get it done.

So, I don’t say, “I’m a medical massage therapist,” or “I’m an oncology massage therapist.” I say, “My name is Xerlan Deery. I’m a licensed and board-certified massage therapist. I specialize in working with people who are medically involved.”

KM: What advice do you have for a massage therapist who would like to connect with a hospital regarding employment?

XD: Every hospital’s going to have a website, and at the very bottom of the website there’s going to be a place that says “Careers” or “Job Opportunities.”

A lot of times, you can click there and check and see if there’s a massage job available. You’d be surprised that sometimes those jobs sit there because nobody knows they exist. Some hospitals have a place online where you can send your resume and CV in, just in case, and say, “I’m interested in this type of job.”

Show up to events. If you want to work with oncology and you know they’re doing this big walk for cancer, buy a ticket. Show up. Get to know people.

KM: Is there a particular type of personality or outlook that would fit better in the hospital environment as a massage therapist than another?

XD: Willing. Non-entrepreneurial. You have to be really good at working with a team, and kind of letting yourself be back there, you know? It’s not a popularity-type thing.

Willingness to learn is huge. We have to do computer-based training year ’round. I’m doing the same trainings that a lot of the nurses and everyone else are doing, because they’re focused on safety and informed consent and ethics.

KM: And what about the training required to perform massage in a hospital?

XD: Sometimes I say, when you’re working in environments like this and in a hospital, it’s more brain than brawn, and all heart—but get real training. It drives me nuts when people say, “Oh, yeah, I’m certified.”

“In what?” I’ll ask.

“Oncology massage.”

“How many hours did you have?”

“Two online.” Or “Four, live.”

I’m just like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

And don’t say certified. Certified is not the same as getting a certificate.

KM: What level of training would you recommend?

XD: I’d say you need to have at least 24 hours, and that’s probably not going to get you in a hospital. That’s going to get you where you’re really, really comfy with people who can show up and get on your table.

When you work in a hospital, you’re working with people that probably are not going to be able to show up and get on your table. There’s so much more to it.

About the Author

Karen Menehan

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor-in-chief for print and digital. Her articles for this publication include “Massage Therapist Jobs: The Employed Practitioner,” published in the Sept. 2022 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of a 2023 FOLIO: Eddie Award for magazine editorial excellence, full issue; and “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” published in in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of a 2022 FOLIO: Eddie Award for editorial excellence, full issue.