Massage Therapy for the Cancer Journey
by Tracy Walton

A while ago I was giving massage to a young woman with advanced breast cancer, with metastases to her brain and a few spots on her ribs. The mechanics of the session required careful modifications in pressure, joint movement and other massage elements for her condition. The mechanics included extra attention to her feet and shoulders because of some complaints she had after long car travel. The mechanics also included a list of interview questions designed for her clinical presentation—questions about her responses to chemotherapy, her blood counts, whether her mouth sores—a response to her new chemo—would permit resting in the face cradle. The mechanics included a little extra time up front in the interview to update me about any diagnostic tests and determine what that meant for the massage session.

It’s hard to capture all of the clinical decision-making steps I made in that paragraph. There were many adjustments, some of them exquisitely small, others more basic, to make in her session. There are many resources—articles, books, and trainings—that detail the information and clinical thinking needed to work safely and well with people with cancer. The resources are growing so fast that I post lists of them on my website, listed at the end of this article.

But at that particular moment of the session, with my hands on my client, I was no longer concerned about the mechanics, the literature, or the clinical thinking. The information, the massage contraindications had all been digested, and those tasks were done. Instead, I was focusing on her larger story as my hands traveled along her back. I was thinking about the long road she’d already traveled, and the long road ahead.

My client was a cancer veteran by the time we met. Her first breast cancer diagnosis occurred eight years before, in her early twenties. She was treated, it was successful, and she said she never looked back. She had moved on with her life and never expected the recurrence she was to face in her thirties, nearly eight years later. As my hands worked her trapezius, her deltoids, her levator scapulae, she had already experienced cancer advancing and retreating over several years of treatments. She had experienced the ongoing face-off between myriad therapies and cancer’s spread. She had lived through diagnostic test after diagnostic test, doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment. She had swung repeatedly from good news to bad news and back again.

Each week, she carefully updated me on her health. But as I worked with her over time, she told me other things too. Before she got on the table she would tell me about trips and family activities. I heard about her tiny, but growing, urban garden. A class she was taking. Her walks, her short bicycle rides. Her husband’s sore throat. His work. She was always aware and engaged in her world, interactive with others, striving for as full a life as possible against a backdrop of one long health crisis.

I loved hearing these stories as my care for her grew over time. I also loved her for filling me in on other things in her life besides cancer and cancer treatment. I felt as though she wanted me to know her, that she was more than her disease, more than the next treatment decision, more than a series of long, hard tasks strung along the cancer journey. Although this client now lives in another city, she tells me she is still in cancer treatment, still working it, and still receiving massage.

This client’s model of a cancer patient—upbeat, hopeful, holistic, self-determining—is the example we all tend to celebrate. We tend to admire the “heroic” cancer patient, holding it up as a model for the rest of us. But in the realm of human experience, there are lots of ways to get sick, survive, get well, and get worse. This client’s experience was just one that I got to observe. Other clients have been a little more cranky or depressed or hopeless. Still others express more, or less, about their experience. But all have captivated me. No matter what their individual leanings or styles, they share a thing in common: the willingness to let me in on their experience. To let me walk with them for a short time, in a small way.

Looking at the title of this article, “the Cancer Journey,” I realize it may oversimplify the range of experiences people have after being diagnosed with cancer. There is no single cancer journey. Each single person’s journey is singular, unique to that person and fraught with its own challenges along the way. But there are shared experiences too, and one of them is the need for companionship along the way. Massage therapists are in a unique position to provide that companionship. We can walk with someone along the path. And no matter what shape the journey takes, we can pocket something valuable about being human. We can learn something from each client’s journey, and our own alongside them.

For resources, trainings, and articles on cancer and massage, visit

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