By Joseph Feldman, M.A., C.P.C., L.M.T.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2000.
One in 10 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her life. This is one of the most frightening, potentially lethal experiences a woman can have. Massage therapists can be of service to women during this critical time in their lives. This is the story of how massage therapy benefited one such woman.
In July 1996, my friend Diane discovered she had a lump in her breast. She immediately went to her primary care physician, an internist, who examined her and referred her for a mammogram. Based on the result of that inconclusive mammogram, Diane’s physician told her not to worry about it, as it was probably cystic fibroids and not cancer. Six months later, increasingly worried, Diane returned to her physician and was again told not to worry, the lump had not changed.
It would be well over a year later, February 1998, after a second mammogram, a change of primary care physicians, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, that Diane would receive a final diagnosis. This vibrant, optimistic, 42-year-old mother of 18-year-old triplets had breast cancer.
Diane is one of my seven employees at the family planning agency where I am the director of education and counseling. I also have a private practice in counseling and massage. So, when Diane was finally diagnosed, and as she prepared for surgery, I was privileged to spend some time listening to and sharing her grief and anxiety. I counseled her, as her friend and as her supervisor, to go on disability, take some time off, and invest her energies in healing, in enjoying her family, and in fighting her cancer and the medical establishment that had mistreated and ignored her.
Diane is like a lot of women: optimistic, obedient to authority and unwilling to make trouble for others. Her story is replete with examples of her having to rise to the challenge of the HMO system, and insist on appropriate care. But fighting this massive system was only half the battle. Undergoing the difficult medical treatments was the other half. Her double mastectomy, though emotionally difficult, was only the beginning. It was followed by extensive chemotherapy, an experimental bone marrow transplant and radiation. Throughout this harrowing experience, I provided my friend with holistic massage and informal counseling. What follows has been reconstructed from my notes.
May 6, 1998
At my instigation, Diane came in for her first massage, after receiving physician approval. Diane had already had a double mastectomy at that point. Nine of the 22 lymph nodes removed and sampled at the time of her surgery were positive for cancer, which classified her as having Stage Two cancer. A tenth positive node would have qualified her as a Stage Three cancer patient. Diane was already undergoing chemotherapy. This first massage was scheduled about one week after her first chemotherapy treatment. She was nervous for her first massage, and left her underwear on, even though I instructed her to completely undress and place herself under a sheet on the massage table. She talked throughout the session. I used mostly Swedish massage techniques, with some range of motion stretches and some trigger point therapy. Afterward, Diane told me she could feel a warmth and relaxation in her chest, where her range of motion had been restricted since the surgery. She had previously been experiencing numbness along the skin surrounding the scars on her chest. She also reported that after the massage she was very relaxed. The next day, she reported that the warmth and comfort in her chest lasted about four hours.
Looking back at that first massage, Diane said, “I was a little uncomfortable during the first massage. I knew it would feel very nice and relaxing. But, I never believed it would help me heal. Then I noticed a curious warm feeling seeping through my chest area. I was astounded. I had thought my chest would be forever numb to any feeling. Suddenly, I was a believer. I knew I was being given a gift that would help my body heal and become strong again.”
May 16, 1998
About one week after her second chemotherapy treatment, Diane came for her second massage. This time Diane was more relaxed, taking her underwear off, but still talking throughout the first half of the massage. Wanting Diane to experience the full benefit of massage, I started silently praying for divine help and guidance. Suddenly, she grew quiet and did not speak again until the massage was over. With her consent, I massaged her chest, around the scars, particularly in areas where I noticed tension or fluid pockets. I used techniques from Swedish massage and trigger point work, and repeated some range of motion stretches. Three days later, she reported that the warmth and comfort lasted about two days, and that her range of motion was improving.
“When a person is being treated for cancer,” she said, “almost everything they have done to them hurts their body. Having a massage was the one thing I could look forward to. It never hurt and it always left me feeling warm, tingly and alive.”
During this session, I also got to massage Diane’s now-bald head. What a pleasure it was to work with the bones, muscles and connective tissue of the head without the interference of hair. But the benefit to Diane was more than physical. “I had not revealed my bald head to anybody except my closest family members. It was as delicate a feeling for me to remove my hat as it had earlier been for me to remove my underwear,” Diane later recalled. “This is not a part of a woman’s body that people are used to seeing. But, because you were so enthusiastic about the hairless head massage, I felt completely comfortable and even lucky that I could experience such a feeling.”
May 25, 1998
I gave Diane her third massage. Chemotherapy was coming up in three days. Diane reported that she could now lift her arms above her head, something she had not been able to do since her surgery. She was silent from the beginning of the session. As I began the massage, I instructed her in the use of a particular visualization. I asked her to imagine that her body was a pole of bright, white light from her head to her feet, surrounded by an egg-shaped aura of light radiating out from the pole.
I told her to imagine that the light could not be dimmed, that it was eternal, that it traveled from life to life and body to body with her. I told her to envision a search beam from the heavens, shining throughout the universe, searching for poles of light to connect with. “All that is required to connect with it, is to relax and to be open to making the connection,” I said. I told her to imagine that when the light found her, and connected with her, it established a two-way exchange of love and light and energy. After a moment or two, I said, “My job is to let my hands be the hands of the light — if it had hands — and to bring healing to your body, your mind and your emotions.”
Diane’s recollection of these types of exercises was very positive. “I loved the visualizations you gave me during massage. I would use them later in the week during meditation. The one that was especially helpful was the idea that the massage helped all the dead, useless cells killed by the chemo to be purged from my body. That meditation during massage helped me feel clean and healthy again, even during the chemotherapy.”
The rest of the 90-minute massage was performed in silence. I did some connective tissue stretching, Swedish massage, trigger point work and range of motion exercises. After the massage, I followed up by performing an aura balancing and energization technique, and holding my warmed hands around her head and visualizing healing light radiating from my hands into her body.
Spontaneously, she reported that she could feel my hands, though I did not touch her at all. At the end of the session, she told me that getting these weekly massages was the best part of her health regimen and her week. The essential oils I used in my lotions included lavender, peppermint and papaya.
June 4, 1998
This session began with Diane telling me how talking to her husband about the massages she was receiving led them to having a conversation about the level of intimacy in their marriage and how that intimacy can be deepened, now that their kids were going off to college.
Also, Diane talked about the healing energy she was feeling during treatment, and how she had realized it was good to contact that energy through me, but it would be better to contact it directly. I gave her some instruction in meditation and we discussed the “healing you took birth for,” a concept taken from Stephen Levine. The healing we take birth for, said Levine, is the lesson each of us has come into this particular incarnation to learn. This was as good a time as any, Diane agreed, to identify what that lesson might be, to learn it, and to be spiritually healed in that way, whether her body was healed of cancer or not.
I did a 90-minute Swedish and acupressure massage, using essential oils in the lotion, and working with her energy field at the close of the session. During the energy work, Diane again spontaneously reported that she could feel the energy (eyes closed and no body contact) just where my hands were. And even though I had not told her what my particular visualization was, or even that I was engaged in visualization, she reported seeing purple light behind her eyes at the same time that I was silently projecting purple light into her body.
June 24, 1998
I used a combination of Swedish and therapeutic massage, and Diane spent the first third of the session discussing her healing, her treatments and her family situation. During this and other sessions, I often suggested particular visualization exercises. She was quiet during the last two-thirds of the massage. I again used a variety of essential oils in my vegetable oil massage lotion. And again I included energy work. “I found, even in the 1990s, there is a stigma toward people who are being treated for cancer,” Diane later told me. “I could feel some people back away and not want to touch me. Your healing massage brought the wonderful feeling of being touched and cared for back into my life at a time when I desperately needed it. The massage also helped bring up thoughts, fears and feelings I was having. I felt completely comfortable talking about them and releasing them in that quiet, peaceful, healing space.”
August 2, 1998
Diane spent the session telling me about her care. She had been out of town, at a university hospital, undergoing stem cell collection, in preparation for her experimental bone marrow transfer. She was very excited about having collected the necessary stem cells in only one day, as opposed to the five days the doctor and nurses had predicted. According to Diane, very few patients had ever collected so many cells in so little time.
She attributed this “miracle” to her positive attitude. I attributed it to the massage and energy work we had been doing. She also talked throughout the session about her hopes and fears related to the upcoming second round of chemotherapy and the stem cell transfer to follow. Now knowing what chemotherapy was like, Diane was naturally feeling some fear and reluctance to undergo another round. I used mostly Swedish massage with lavender lotion. Diane reported that her chest had been feeling tight, sunken and uncomfortable, but after the massage, that feeling was completely gone. After the session, Diane told me how much the massages and counseling had helped her through this treatment process. She told me she would probably proceed with the next round of treatment, as planned, knowing it was the best thing to do. While I believe Diane would have done so with or without massage, I have to believe that massage helped her deal with the fear and supported her confidence that she could survive more treatment.
October 10, 1998
I had not seen Diane until she came in for another massage in October. Her stem cell transfer had been remarkably successful, and her blood counts returned to normal much more quickly than anyone had expected. She had been released from care earlier than expected. Now she was preparing for radiation therapy, and then, much later, breast reconstructive surgery. I used Swedish massage, working the chest and back muscles with extra care, and applying some energy work to the entire body. Diane was doing well physically, but her emotional life was difficult. Cancer often puts a strain on a patient’s family, and now her marriage was in trouble. Having faced her own mortality, and having been through treatment with less help from her husband than she would have liked, Diane was questioning many things in her life. I recommended individual and/or family counseling, with someone other than myself, so Diane could decide what she wanted to do with this relationship and other areas of her life.
It would be another four months before Diane was able to return to work. She and her husband were just beginning counseling, and the marriage was still tenuous. But Diane was optimistic about her life, and was planning for the future.
For me, this process of applying massage to a patient facing a terribly difficult medical situation was very rewarding. I had previously worked with several people who had AIDS, but helping Diane prepare for, and get through, this extensive treatment was exactly the kind of work I went to massage school to prepare for. During her treatment, Diane and I discussed, several times, the idea that everyone facing such serious and extended therapy should have this kind of loving, hands-on support – not only to boost immune function, but to raise the spirits and counter the feelings of isolation and depression which often accompany this kind of medical treatment.
Diane talks about the time we shared by saying, “This was the year I learned so much about awful medical treatments, monstrous personal fears, tremendous personal challenges and unexpected family struggles. But, it was also the year I learned about the kindness of friends, the goodness of nurses, the strength of my body and the healing power of meditative massage. I have told other women with breast cancer how helpful and healing it was to have massage therapy during the treatment process. I hope this prompts other therapists to reach out to cancer patients and offer their healing touch.”