Lucy O'Donnell

Lucy O'Donnell

Cancer Is a Teacher

Why Is it Difficult to Get a Massage When You Have Cancer?

It is not contraindicative to perform holistic therapies on people with cancer.

Posted Feb 03, 2015

Since being diagnosed with cancer, I have found it extremely difficult to receive holistic treatments, such as massage and reflexology.  The whole industry is aloft with negative myths, which come from a total misunderstanding, about the nature of the illness and the medical treatments commonly given.  I have consistently been turfed out of spas and refused treatment on the basis that massage is “contraindicated.”   It got to the point when I had to hide the fact that I was undergoing treatment for cancer in order to get a massage.  Amongst some of the “contraindications,” therapists think that massage will:  spread the cancer, promote the development of lymphoedema, reduce the effects of the chemotherapy, and will flush medication from the body.  Oh my goodness!  It is entirely the opposite, and this is evidenced based.   The clinic where I received my chemotherapy, and still do receive treatment, always offers reflexology or massage, and I find it profoundly relaxing and nurturing.  But what I didn’t know until very recently is that there were other reasons why therapists would not treat me.  Alarmingly, these were that the therapists thought they could be contaminated by the chemotherapy drugs secreted through my sweat glands and be exposed to harmful radiation. 

This word “contraindication” is brandished around far too liberally—what does it really mean?   To me, it feels like a piece of jargon used as an excuse not to give a treatment but not really knowing why not.  And what causes this?  I would say a lack of education, which then promotes fear.   It is the therapists who are “contraindicated,” not the therapy.  Now, thank goodness some medical organizations have taken great steps to dispel these mad myths and have integrated complementary therapies with conventional medicine.  They have established training programs to teach therapists how to treat patients with, or recovering from cancer, or any other illnesses or traumatic events such as bereavement.

One of these organisations is the NHS Christie Trust based in Manchester, United Kingdom.  They train therapists to practice safely and sensitively and require a working understanding of cancer, its treatments, the impact of diagnosis, and common side effects.

Although I have finished the “radical treatment” for my cancer, I am now having “maintenance treatment” (forever)—that is because I have stage 4 cancer, which means it can never be cured.  So whilst I am always a little fragile and have to cope with on-going side effects and multiple procedures and small operations, I am a lot more robust than a lot of patients who have just come out of chemo, radiotherapy, and major surgery.  But I can well remember how I felt back then physically and emotionally.

My body ached more than I can describe.  I longed for somebody to give me “hands on treatment,” to touch me like they would touch a “normal” person.  When I was refused treatment, I felt so angry that they didn’t understand how beneficial—physically, emotionally, and spiritually massage and other treatments could be.

When you have a debilitating disease like cancer, the chances are you are not very mobile and spend a lot of time in hospital or recovering at home.  Good blood circulation is vital—it oxygenates the blood.  So surely it makes sense:  massage boosts circulation.

For people who are more frail or who are in the midst of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, there are so many ways of administering these therapies.  You can sit in a position that works for you—for instance if you cannot lie on your front, then you can be treated in a sitting up position and on your back.  If you are confined to a wheel-chair or on oxygen, that should not be a problem either.

If you are self-conscious from surgery, such as having had a mastectomy, for example, therapists can use extra draping materials to protect you from feeling vulnerable or you can even remain fully clothed.

There is simply no reason why somebody being treated for cancer cannot have these treatments.  I am sure the majority of fellow cancerites will agree with me that having a hands on therapy—even if it is just gentle stroking is one of the most relieving things, lessening the symptoms and improving quality of life.

Lucy O’Donnell is the author of “Cancer Is My Teacher”—a practical, physical and emotional guide from diagnosis to post recovery, including ideas for family and friends.

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