Megan Belanger, L.M.T., C.L.T., 40, of Westborough, Massachusetts, specializes in oncology massage, lymphedema treatment and gentle scar tissue mobilization. She graduated from Cortiva Institute in Watertown, Massachusetts, and has owned her own practice for four years. She is an oncology massage teaching assistant for Tracy Walton & Associates and is the founder of Touch of Kindness, a pay-it-forward fund for her massage practice. MASSAGE Magazine interviewed her for the December 2016 issue; a shorter version of this interview was printed in the magazine.
When and how did you decide massage therapy was the right career for you?
A: After working in the corporate world for many years, I started feeling the strain of not connecting with people—it was all spreadsheets and databases and conference calls.
I got regular massage at different spas during that time, and I would interview the therapists, who all unanimously loved their jobs. It got me thinking about how it would feel at the end of a workday to say that I helped someone to feel better than when they walked in.
I went to a one-day orientation at a local massage school and instantly felt right at home. Even though it was such a U-turn from my previous career, I haven’t looked back for a moment.
What led you to specialize in oncology massage and other cancer-related care?
A: Right from the get-go when I enrolled in massage school, I was drawn to the idea of massage in cancer care, in working with a population that, while going through medical treatments and experiencing plenty of accompanying stress, might not be getting enough comfort-oriented, pain-free touch.
In school I found I had a naturally gentle touch and enjoyed working in the more superficial layers of the body rather than working very deeply. I took Tracy Walton’s four-day course a few weeks after graduation, and that class really cemented my desire to work in the oncology sphere.
How did you come up with your Touch of Kindness pay-it-forward program?
A: I started getting more and more calls from clients with cancer or lymphedema who were seeking massage, but because they were strapped with medical bills, they often could not afford my services. I knew I still needed to make a living but hated turning anyone away because of money.
I’d heard about this pay-it-forward thing a pizza place in Philadelphia, Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, was doing, where customers can pay extra, get a sticky note, and place it on the wall so those in need in the community can take a note off the wall and get some food with no questions asked. I figured, “Why couldn’t we do the same thing for a massage practice?” Enter Touch of Kindness.
How has the program been working?
It’s been working very well over the past year-plus and has really gotten into a groove these past few months. There has been a steady stream of people contributing to the fund and a steady stream of clients using money from it toward their massage sessions.
I don’t take gratuities, so it’s been great to have a place where clients can say thank you by paying it forward so that someone with cancer, cancer history or lymphedema can get a massage who might not otherwise have been able to. It’s a win-win-win, and I’ve been working to get the word out about this setup, not only to other massage therapists, but to other businesses in general. It’s so simple, yet it really adds up.
What strategies do you use to market yourself, and find new clients?
A: I make a lot of postcards, each of them tailored to a specific audience (oncology massage, those with lymphedema, post-mastectomy clients), and I either mail them or make appointments to meet with doctors, physical therapists, garment fitters, etc., and talk with them about what I do. My website is pretty central to what I do, so a lot of people find me on Google thanks to [search keywords], and I also speak at cancer support groups about oncology massage and lymphedema.
I find that simply talking about the work with enthusiasm, about what is available to people in terms of treatment and support, goes a long way. I also have postcards about the Touch of Kindness fund, and that serves as a marketing tool as well. It’s great to be able to talk about your services and offer another way that people can pay to receive them.
What challenges does a therapist face that are unique to working with cancer patients?
A: Complex medical histories can mean a lot of critical thinking and clinical decision-making, and sometimes really having to think on your feet to make sure you are doing what you can to make your client’s massage session safe and comfortable.
There can be a strong emotional component as well, whether for the client, the therapist, or both, and the skill of learning to listen and to hold space can take some time to cultivate and some centering on the therapist’s part.
What do you do for self-care and in your free time, to stay healthy and energized?
A: I need to keep my body moving to be both physically and mentally at my best, but I need to do it in a way that brings me joy and that feels like play. I dance with Hula Hoops, I’m in a hip-hop dance troupe, I do yoga, and I’m currently starting out learning circus arts on the aerial silks.
What advice would you give someone wanting to pursue a career in massage and bodywork that you wish someone had given you?
A: Specialize, specialize, specialize. Find what calls to you and really focus your continuing education and your practice in that direction. Don’t feel like you need to offer every modality, and it’s okay that you’re not going to be the best fit for every client. Refer them to someone who might be.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a massage therapist?
A: Connecting with other people in a way that transcends small talk, that makes a difference, no matter how small, in someone’s day, including my own. I especially love what can happen over the course of a first session with a new client, particularly if it is someone who has been going through a complex medical journey.
When we first meet, they often have what I call “street face”—their guard is up, they don’t know me, they aren’t really sure what they are in for at their session. But after we talk, after they are on the table and start to settle in, watching that guard come down for a bit as they realize that they are being cared for, that this is their show, their space.
Someone has trusted me with their body, and that resulting softening that happens—the street face disappears and what replaces it is beautiful to see. I am humbled and honored over and over again.