Cancer and Massage: Stories Unfold
By Tracy Walton

“So what do you do for work?”

I tell them I do massage therapy with people with cancer. And I travel around the country teaching a course about massage therapy for people with cancer.

So far, so good. But two more questions inevitably flow from that conversation. One, why am I drawn to that work, and, two, why am I drawn to teach it?

I skip to the second question, easier to answer. It’s because massage therapists who sign up for a course on cancer are, without exception, remarkable people. They are extraordinary: thoughtful, dedicated, conscientious. Because I get to spend my days with them and I leave feeling full of hope. Because I thoroughly enjoy them and our time together.

But the answer to the first question catches me short. For more than ten years I’ve been doing massage therapy with people at end of life, during their diagnosis, during survivorship, in the middle of cancer treatment. And I still have trouble saying why. It calls to a place too deep in me for casual conversation. So I start to mumble and get hoarse. I focus on the work itself. I say, “Massage therapy is helpful during cancer treatment.” Maybe I go on to cite symptoms, studies of massage benefits, the rational justification for my work.

But the truth is, my clients interest me more than my work does. And it’s hard to capture, in a sound bite, how a client’s presence brings something sacred to my life. Instead of a recitation of techniques, theories, and research data, a single story comes to mind:

One late winter afternoon I finished my session with a client, a recent cancer survivor. I left my treatment room to wash my oil bottle and hands. The time it takes to do these simple tasks corresponds roughly to the time it takes a client on the other side of the door to dress. Returning to the treatment room, I knocked on the door. From within I heard a clear, “All set!” and I opened the door. I expected my client to be dressed, gathering her things. Instead she stood in front of the mirror, still unclothed. Confused and apologizing, I started to leave the room to give her more time to put on her clothing.

“No, no, please stay,” she said. I closed the door uncertainly. She stood in her underwear, turning and surveying her body in the mirror, sometimes craning her neck to see herself. “I’d like you to look at me. I’d like you to look with me…to look at my body and to notice its changes since cancer treatment.”

All of my training told me to withdraw and give her privacy to dress. But even if instinct hadn’t told me to stay, my client had told me in the firmest of tones. I stayed and joined her in front of the mirror. Together we listed the changes in her body. The pucker at the rim of her breast, a lumpectomy. The scar into her underarm and the numb reminder of nerve damage. The lost hair, the thinned eyebrows. The weight loss from chemotherapy’s nausea, captured one night she stood in front of the juice cooler at the supermarket, mourning the loss of her appetite. The weight gain after chemo ended and took the nausea with it. The weeks it took for her hair to grow back. We remembered these milestones of recovery and regrowth, including one triumphant moment—her first haircut after chemotherapy. Each of the things we saw in the mirror had a story attached to it, and we retold several of them as we stood there.

We stood for some time, reviewing the changes in her body from the last two hard years. We examined the terrain of her body for everything that had happened to it and we named the events.

My client dressed quietly, rescheduled, and left.

The room felt hushed. I moved slowly, carefully gathering linens and tidying for the next day.

My client returned to me for massage for years. She never again spoke of this exchange.

What happens to our bodies happens deeply and in private. We live alone in them. No one can ever know fully what it’s like to be inside another’s skin. Cancer brings strange assaults and even stranger healing. Along the way it tells stories. These stories are important for us to hear, remember, and preserve.

As massage therapists, we get to see, feel, and hear these stories. We have the honor of walking with people on their various paths, as they tell us their stories of their lives.

I guess that’s the real answer to the question.

Tracy Walton, LMT, M.S., is the 2003 AMTA Teacher of the Year. She consults to hospitals, writes, and teaches “Caring for Clients with Cancer,” a course offered nationally for professional massage therapists. Back home, she works with the Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital in Boston, researching the role of massage therapy for people with metastatic cancer. She can be reached at Her Web site,, includes a current bibliography on cancer and massage.

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