by Cindy Doody

Bruce Hopkins, a Fortune 500 executive, was diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia in 1998. It was at this point he decided to take a step back, battle cancer, retire and become a massage therapist.

Like many of us, we often find ourselves saying, “If someone told me that I would become a massage therapist, there is no way I would have believed him or her.” Today, Hopkins is an oncology massage therapist in Kittery, Maine, and is also founder of the Society for Oncology Massage (S4OM). S4OM was created from the first national oncology massage convention held in spring 2007 in Toledo, Ohio. It has taken three years of detailed preparation and diligent work from many individuals for massage therapists to benefit from this year’s Oncology Massage Healing Summit, held at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minnesota, from April 30 to May 2.

“We’ve worked hard, and I feel that we have the ground floor of the organization built,” Hopkins said about S4OM. “Here we are, our structure is about to emerge, so that that we may appeal to larger audiences, continue to grow programming and provide the therapists and consumers with more tools. I’d like to also collaborate with larger associations like AMTA, and reach out to the medical community as well. The sky is the limit as long as we can carry the heart in what we’re doing.”

The Tribe: A Review of the 2010 Oncology Massage Healing Summit, MASSAGE Magazine

Today, S4OM is growing its members with a strong board of directors, and Gayle McDonald, author of Medicine Hands: Massage Therapy for People with Cancer and Massage for the Hospital Patient and Medically Frail Client, as president emeritus.

From the moment I arrived at the Minneapolis/St.Paul airport, I felt like a kindergartener on her first day of school. I was meeting other people who shared a common goal with me. I was ready to learn new things and meet new friends. When we boarded the hotel shuttle from the airport, the excitement in the air was palpable. Everyone wanted to know where the other was from and where he or she practiced. Once we reached the hotel, it felt like we had a new group of friends—only to realize there was an entire room filled with more new people. The first person I saw was my oncology massage teacher, Tracy Walton. “I’ve arrived,” I said. “Tracy, you were right. The tribe has gathered again!”

At its most basic description, oncology massage is bodywork designed specifically to the needs of people dealing with cancer and/or its treatments. The main focus is to enhance healing while “doing no harm” to people whose bodies are: dealing with lowered immune systems, at risk for developing lymph edema, stressed by radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment(s) or recovering from surgery.

McDonald opened the conference stating it was a “family reunion.” She went on to explain, “As above, so below, every part of our body relates to a constellation. The cancer constellation relates to the heart. Home is where the heart is. Welcome home.”

The Tribe: A Review of the 2010 Oncology Massage Healing Summit, MASSAGE Magazine

Walton then followed by honoring Cynthia D. Myers, Ph.D., L.M.T., who lost her battle with cancer in 2008. Myers, who was remembered as a friend, mentor and committed teacher of oncology massage, was also one of the initial members of S40M. Fifteen more therapists are now able to attend this year’s summit thanks to a scholarship founded in Myer’s namesake. The opening ceremony continued with a quiet moment, then Cathy Fanslow-Brunjes, author of Using the Power of Hope to Cope with Dying: The Four Stages of Hope, presented the wisdom of the hope system. The message and gift she gave us was to remind us that “we can live with the knowledge that we have an incurable disease. But none of us can live with the thought that we are hopeless.”

Following the opening ceremony, attendees of the summit were divided into sessions, including: Strengthening Immunity with Bodywork, Research & Practice, The Science Behind Gentle Touch, Massage for Children with Cancer, Communicating with Medical Staff, A Less Demanding Approach to Post Mastectomy/Radiotherapy Scar and Adhesion Release, Community-Based Oncology Massage Clinics and The Psychological, Emotional and Physical Aspects of Mastectomy. For the entire list of presenters, visit www.nwhealth.edu/conted/seminars/oncology.html.

Day two of the summit began with an uplifting, funny one-woman-show of Jonna’s Body, Please Hold with Jonna Tamases. Tamases had cancer three times; however, she had no problem recounting her experience with a dry, witty, blunt perspective. Tamases comical performance received a standing ovation.

The Tribe: A Review of the 2010 Oncology Massage Healing Summit, MASSAGE Magazine

Later that day during lunch, I was able to interview McDonald, recognized as one of the pioneers for her work in oncology massage. “It’s my role to maintain the wave. We are in maintenance, our roots are strong and our stems are growing. I’d like to step back one day and see a well-maintained plant. No energy is better than the other energy, although this is my role. And I’m blessed to fulfill that.”

At the closing ceremonies, attendees were given details of the next summit, scheduled to be held in 2013, most likely at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

In the days following the summit, I was flooded with ideas, emotions and thoughts about oncology massage. But the one theme that kept coming back to me was the idea of hope. I was discussing the meaning of hope with a friend. For her, building hope is to live in the present—to give a daily appreciation for the moment and offer a light of hope for the day, nothing more. We cannot control the past or the future. In that moment, when a cancer patient is on our table, in our care, we, as therapists, can have a direct impact on his or her physical and emotional comfort—and perhaps leave them with a renewed sense of hope and peace.

Cindy Doody graduated from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, with a degree in communications. After a 10-year career in marketing in the high-tech arena, she graduated from Dovestar Institute of Holistic Massage and Healing in 2001. Doody is drawn to myofascial and neuromuscular work, and has enjoyed working with athletes from her hometown to professional athletes in the Boston area from ages 9 to 89. Doody has also spent the past four years working with clients with cancer and offering oncology massage at her practice in Cohasset, Massachusetts. She can be reached at www.mariposabody.com.

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