A clinic in Oakland provides massage for cancer patients who typically do not receive any form of care

In a metropolitan area known for its elaborate skyscrapers, the yellow brick building at 610 Sixteenth Street in Oakland, California, is fairly nondescript.

But the healing that happens in suite 426 is anything but.

Since 1991, volunteer massage therapists, herbalists, nutritionists, energy workers and acupuncturists have provided integrative care to self-identified low-income and homeless women with cancer at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic.

Many of the women who get massage therapy at the clinic are not taken care of, says Charlotte Maxwell Clinic’s Executive Director yvonne charles (she spells her name all lowercase). They are among the working poor or homeless who have late-stage cancer.

It’s the Privileged Who Can Volunteer

Massage therapist volunteers don’t have to have training in oncology massage or other specialty modalities to offer massage for cancer patients at the clinic, charles says. The massage modalities Charlotte Maxwell Clinic offers are Swedish, craniosacral and shiatsu.

However, volunteers are required to do a two-day training that includes a biology of cancer presentation, so everyone gains basic knowledge about the disease process clients are experiencing.

The 27-year-old clinic collaborates with a practitioner who teaches oncology massage workshops on-site. The training allows massage therapists to get continuing education credits at a deep discount, charles says, providing a benefit to those who volunteer.

Volunteers must also attend a segment on the politics of cancer so they understand the socio-economic-cultural facets of the disease.

Volunteers are also trained to practice from a place of humility, because the clinic’s clients come from a diverse cultural background. About 75 percent are Latina, African-American or Chinese-American.

Paired with the cultural humility training is a session on privilege.

A low-income client of Charlotte Maxwell Clinic in Oakland, California, receives a massage session.

A low-income client of Charlotte Maxwell Clinic in Oakland, California, receives a massage session. Courtesy of Charlotte Maxwell Clinic

“I don’t care where you come from,” charles says, “but if you have the wherewithal to volunteer at Charlotte Maxwell Clinic, that means you have a certain level of privilege, right?”

Rising Poverty

Oakland is home to sophisticated restaurants and bars, a thriving arts scene and top music venues. It’s also going through an aggressive round of gentrification.

As sister city to San Francisco and part of a region of the country where the cost of housing is sky-high, it is also home to many people who are living at or near the poverty level or who are homeless. It is these people that the volunteers and staff of clinic serves.

Even though the economy of the Bay Area was recently determined to be so large that if the region were its own nation, it would rank as the 19th-largest economy in the world, poverty and homelessness are and have been a massive problem.

A big component of that problem is that housing costs outstrip incomes for most people living there. Rental and housing prices in the Bay Area are some of the highest in the country. And while the city of San Francisco has spent millions to combat poverty and homelessness, the rates have held steady.

In an economic report of the region released this summer, the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute said “… in spite of being home to the spectacular economic engine of the Bay Area, the state of California also has the highest levels of real poverty and child poverty in the nation. Many of the Bay Area’s residents are housing cost burdened, and homelessness has increased.”

It is not unusual for Charlotte Maxwell Clinic staff and volunteers to learn that their clients are sleeping in their cars, in tent encampments, in garages, or couch-surfing, so having educational sessions to train volunteers on cultural humility and managing the habits of being privileged is important, charles says.

Volunteers must understand that no one knows each other as well as they think they do; they need to not be defensive; and they need to be able to admit mistakes and apologize. That’s harder to do than most think it will be, she says.

Volunteers at the Charlotte Maxwell Clinic are trained to practice from a place of humility and learn about privilege. Courtesy of Charlotte Maxwell Clinic

Benefits of Massage for Cancer Patients

As cancer patients, the women are poked and prodded and their treatments often leave them with emotional and physical discomfort, pain and stress. Most have not had massage before, thinking of it as a luxury for the rich that they’ll never experience.

When these women walk out of a therapy room after receiving massage, charles says, everyone can see the difference in them. “You see in spas, [women] come out blissed out, but our ladies come out healed, honestly.”

Studies have demonstrated that cancer patients benefit from massage. It can decrease inflammation and swelling; lessen nausea; relax tense and sore muscles; improve circulation and sleep; lower stress and anxiety; and release endorphins that help counteract pain.

Once the clinic’s clients experience the healing of massage, charles says, they want more of it, making it one of the most sought-after services the clinic offers. Which is why, she says, they are always in need of more massage therapist volunteers.

Charlotte Maxwell Clinic doesn’t have many requirements of those who want to volunteer; therapists must be licensed and agree to volunteer for one shift a month for one year. Therapists provide three 50-minute massages during a shift on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, when the clinic is open for clients to receive therapeutic services.

Working with a clientele that comes from such tough circumstances and faces difficult diagnoses is not for everybody (the clinic does emphasize self-care for its volunteers and requires check-ins after each session), but the benefits are tremendous.

“People say, ‘Aren’t you depressed to work here?” charles says. And yes, she acknowledges, that staff does get sad watching clients struggle and, in some cases, die—but most of the time, the work is incredibly rewarding.

“We get called angels. We get called family, you know? Staff, practitioners—we get so many hugs,” said charles. “It’s really nice. Talk about healing touch, right?”

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; her articles include “Targeted Supplements Could Make Your Self-Care Routine More Effective” and “Innovative New York Program Brings Massage Therapy to Military Veterans.”