by Pat Mayrhofer
Cancer is one of the most dreaded and feared diseases. Many people feel it is a death sentence; however there have been some major strides in treatments for cancer. More individuals are recovering, in remission and surviving than ever before.
The question has always been, “Should a massage therapist massage an individual suffering with cancer?” The experts in the medical and massage fields have gone back and forth with their opinions, and the most recent thoughts are that massage is good for the cancer patient.
Massage therapists must educate themselves on proper techniques and precautions before working with people afflicted with cancer. Hands-on training in a seminar is the best method for learning; therapists should take seminars by experts like Tracy Walton, Gayle MacDonald and Cheryl Chapman, who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with clients who have undergone chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. It is important to understand the effects of the disease, its limitations, contraindications and the emotional component before working with cancer patients.
Cancer patients experience a depleted immune system (low white blood count), which leaves them susceptible to infection. The therapist should be in good health and not have a sore throat, cold or the flu. With a weakened immune system, extra caution must be taken for cleanliness by keeping the massage area free from germs. It is recommended to wash the massage stones and change the water after every client. In this situation, an extra step may be warranted: Spray the stones before placing them in the massage stone heater with a disinfectant like Pure Green 24, which is a natural product that kills almost all germs. This extra step will give the therapist the satisfaction that the massage stones are clean.
The temperature of the stones is another important consideration. Patients exposed to chemo and radiation may have peripheral neuropathy, which may either leave them unable to feel temperature or be extremely sensitive to temperature, particularly cold. In general, the chemo depletes the red blood cell count, leaving the patient anemic, which may make them intolerant to cold temperatures. The warmth from the massage stones is comforting and nurturing at a time when the patient needs it the most. The therapist should avoid using hot stones; it is best to modify the temperature to a more medium range, perhaps around 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold marble stones would not be indicated for this type of massage.
Each cancer patient is an individual, and must be treated as such. Every condition is different. All potential clients must get permission from their physician to have a massage before their appointment. If they are receiving chemo, then the best time for them to be massaged is just after their treatment or just before the next treatment. Mid treatment the patient may not be feeling her best, and may experience nausea, vomiting, light-headedness and fatigue. Therefore, it is better to avoid that mid-cycle time. Patients also may experience skin irritation, bruising, skin inflammation, skin rash or chapping. If this occurs, then stone massage would be contraindicated.
During chemo or recovery, any massage that is given must be gentle; deep work should be avoided. Patients are at increased risk for bruising and bleeding related to low platelet counts. However, working with warm massage stones will help to deeply relax the muscle tissue with light pressure, achieving a profound relaxation. Long, slow, rhythmic strokes with the warm massage stones are most appropriate. Avoid all friction massage techniques and use only unscented massage oil.
Many individuals going through chemo treatments have a port or IAP (implantable access port) implanted for easier access and less trauma for the patient. The port allows for intravenous infusions of medication, eliminating numerous sticks with a needle. The port is usually found in the upper chest wall; however, some are found in the abdomen. Therapists must exercise caution and avoid this area when massaging with hands or stones.
Stone massage should be performed with caution and only with proper education on how to safely utilize and handle the stones. This education should be combined with training on cancer massage. The massage benefits are many for the cancer patient. It provides them with comfort during their medical treatment, helps them to accept the changes in their body, decreases anxiety and depression, promotes sleep and lessens the unpleasant effects of their treatment. Also don’t forget the family who is supporting the cancer patient. Offer the family a full, relaxing, hot-stone massage to help them cope with the medical circumstance their loved one is enduring.
Be sensitive and nurturing with the cancer client. For reasons such as an operation site, nausea, dizziness or a port, give them the option of how they would feel most comfortably positioned on the massage table; they may feel more comfortable in a sitting position rather than prone or supine. Work at their comfort level. Your intent is the most important ingredient in their treatment. They need to feel special and loved.
Pat Mayrhofer is president and founder of Nature’s Stones Inc., an international massage-stone, education and supply company. She is a massage therapist with more than 15 years of experience, having taught for 13 of those years in Italy, Austria, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Mayrhofer and her staff have created a comprehensive series of live, hands-on training programs, educational DVDs available for distance learning and a line of associated stone and textile products. For more information, visit www.naturestonesinc.com.