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Respite and relief

Author: Bridget McCrea

If there’s one thing that Carolyn Dietz loves about her 30-minute therapeutic massage appointments, it’s the warm, comforting hands that touch her and manually work to help ease her discomfort. “It’s such a personal, intimate experience,” says Carolyn, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2005. “The massage therapists put their mindfulness and dedication into what they are doing and give so much of themselves in the process."

Regular lymphatic massage of her face and neck has been part of Carolyn’s treatment plan for the past two and a half years. Her current targeted chemotherapy treatment has kept her in remission, but she says side effects like inflammation of the soft-tissue lining of her nose and throat can impair her quality of life. “The edema and puffiness around my eyes are very noticeable,” Carolyn says, “and when I wake up in the morning my head and ears are full of pressure.”

After discussing the issues with her oncologist and learning that the inflammatory responses were a fairly common side effect of the chemotherapy plan that she was on, Carolyn met with Orlando Moreno, LMT, CLT, a Cancer Treatment Centers of America® massage therapist, to come up with a personalized therapeutic plan. At first, she says, the focus was less on localized massage for specific areas of the body and more on overall relaxation and calm.

“When Orlando and his team started working with me, I was in physical and emotional distress,” Carolyn explains. “At that point in my life, all the psychotherapy in the world wouldn’t have gotten me through the crisis I was in.” But when the massage therapist’s warm, healing hands came into the picture, she says, she began to experience relief from her misery.

“As they worked on my body, my body in turn communicated with my brain and told it to settle down and that all would be well,” she explains, noting that the relief was noticeable after her first session with Orlando. “His healing hands helped rid my body of the toxins that were creating the edema and the other side effects. It was wonderful.”

Once Carolyn’s body and mind began to benefit from the calming effects of the massage, the therapist went to work on her face and forehead—helping alleviate the congestion in her sinuses, eyes and ears. “When he works at my ears, it takes away the ringing and the heartbeat in my ears and the feeling of being underwater,” Carolyn says. “During the massage session, it literally feels like a stopper is being released in my head.”

Carolyn has also seen benefits from a specific manual lymph drainage technique in which her massage therapist uses a gloved hand to “gently tap” the roof of her mouth to the point where it meets her throat (hard and soft palate). Using this process along with craniosacral therapy, the therapist attempts to release compression in the head, spinal column and sacrum to alleviate stress and pain. “It opens up my sinuses from the inside of my face,” Carolyn says. “The massage helps alleviate the feeling of rocking back and forth on a boat,” she says, describing the congested eustachian tubes that frequently affect her sense of balance.

Carolyn says she is both pleased with the results she has experienced since she began incorporating massage therapy into her treatment plan and appreciative of the therapists who provide the relief. “I have an improved quality of life,” she says, “and am ever so appreciative of the variety of massage techniques that the therapists are using to release the toxins that would otherwise be building up in my body.”

Massage as a complementary therapy

The use of oncology massage isn’t new, but it is garnering more attention as patients increasingly seek out complementary therapies that work as integrated components of their cancer treatment plans to help manage side effects and improve quality of life.

According to the American Cancer Society, oncology massage reduces the stress and the anxiety associated with cancer and its treatment. In addition to the emotional benefits, massage may help cancer patients by reducing the physical side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue.

A growing number of health-care professionals recognize massage as a useful addition to conventional medical treatment. In a 1999 publication, for example, the National Cancer Institute found that about half of its cancer centers offered massage as an adjunctive therapy to cancer treatment.

“Over the past 25 years, we have seen an increasing number of massage therapists working with patients undergoing treatment for cancer,” says Moreno, who understands the challenges and the considerations necessary for oncology patients to benefit from massage therapy. “With universities publishing research on the benefits of massage and with more therapists focusing on oncology massage, it’s becoming more and more common to find us in hospital environments.”

It is important to note the difference between oncology massage and the regular, therapeutic variety. According to the Society for Oncology Massage (s4om.org), an oncology massage is a customized session designed to “meet the unique and changing needs of someone in treatment for cancer or with a history of cancer treatment.” A safe oncology massage plan generally revolves around the side effects (both short- and long-term) of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Massage therapists trained in oncology massage adapt established massage therapy techniques to suit the specific needs of patients.

Massage therapy focused on cancer patients’ unique needs provides many benefits, Moreno says, and can be used to help manage a variety of side effects of treatment and improve general well-being. He says that because massage can help the body release endorphins— its natural painkillers—it can help alleviate physical discomfort and minimize the release of cortisol (which signals a “stressed-out” body).

Oncology massage—and specifically a technique called lymphatic drainage— can also help patients who experience fluid buildup in the lymphatic system as a side effect of cancer treatment. (A breast cancer patient who has had a mastectomy, for example, may experience fluid buildup in her arm.) “Lymphatic drainage, a manual technique for moving the fluid back into the venous system, can—together with exercise and the use of compression garments— provide relief,” Moreno says. But he cautions patients to be sure to seek out a certified lymphedema specialist who has experience in oncology for this type of therapy. “If someone doesn’t understand lymphedema or the details about where the fluid is moving to and from, he or she could do more damage than good,” Moreno says. (See sidebar “Six Questions to Ask in Advance” for more questions to ask a massage therapist.)

In addition to the many clinical benefits of massage therapy, Moreno says it provides patients a much-needed respite from the rest of their lives and the world. “We take them out of the day for just a brief moment and provide a calm and relaxing environment for them to enjoy,” he says.

The comforting touch of massage

Moreno says that his experience working with cancer patients has shown him that the benefits of therapeutic massage go beyond just being able to properly manipulate fluids, address toxins and alleviate head congestion. In many cases the therapy fills a very basic human need. “Humans need to be touched in order to be well and to feel loved and cared for,” he says. “Along with the physiological benefits of massage, there is definitely an emotional and energetic component that comes from feeling ‘connected.’ ”

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