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April 9, 2013 > Healing Touch Benefits Cancer Patients

Healing Touch Benefits Cancer Patients

Washington Hospital Offers Specialized Oncology Massage at Infusion Center

Cancer can be painful and scary. The stress and anxiety associated with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer can be overwhelming. But thanks to the oncology massage therapy offered at Washington Hospital, many cancer patients are getting some relief from both the pain and anxiety.

"Some of my patients tell me massage is like a little vacation from their cancer," said Shari Kellen, an oncology nurse navigator at Washington Hospital's Sandy Amos R.N. Infusion Center. "A cancer diagnosis is very stressful; your life changes in the blink of an eye, so therapeutic massage is a welcome relief."

The oncology massages are available to patients for free at the Infusion Center, a state-of-the-art cancer treatment center that was designed to maximize patients' care and comfort. The outpatient facility features a spa-like setting that includes eight private infusion chairs with a range of amenities such as internet access and a personal flat-screen television.

The Infusion Center is a centralized place where cancer patients' health care team can coordinate their medical care. Kellen and two other nurse navigators are part of that team and can connect patients to the care and services they might need such as support groups, nutrition education, and spiritual care. Oncology massage is one of the services they often recommend.

"Oncology massage offers both physical and emotional benefits," Kellen said. "The massages take place in the privacy of the individual rooms at the Infusion Center. Patients say they feel so much better after their massage. Just experiencing the human touch and connection can be beneficial. Often family and friends are afraid to touch patients who are undergoing treatment, so they long for that human connection."

According to Kellen, there used to be a misconception that massage was not safe for cancer patients because it could cause the cancer to spread. But that myth has been debunked with research that shows the therapeutic benefits of massage, she said.

"However, it does require someone who is specially trained in oncology massage," Kellen added. "There are a lot of issues to consider, particularly in patients who have undergone surgery or had lymph nodes removed. Pressure can only be applied in certain areas, so it's important for the massage therapist to know that."

Alleviating Pain

Carol Durham has seen firsthand how massage can help to alleviate pain and improve the overall sense of wellbeing for cancer patients. She is an oncology-trained certified massage therapist who works with cancer patients at Washington Hospital

"Many of these patients are sore; their muscles are tight from radiation, chemotherapy, and the stress of having cancer," she explained. "The pain management aspect is critical, but massage has a number of other benefits as well."

Massage can help to improve patients' relaxation, sleep, mobility, range of motion, and immune system responses, according to Durham. It can also help to relieve fatigue, anxiety, depression, and nausea.

As Kellen pointed out, oncology massage should only be provided by a massage therapist like Durham who has been trained in the specifics of cancer and cancer treatment. Each session is individualized depending on the patients' needs and treatment.

"Each case is different depending on where they are at with their treatment, whether they have recently had surgery, and what stage their cancer is," she said. "Oncology massage is often gentler than a traditional massage. We are trained on how to avoid surgery sites and other compromised areas. For example, if lymph nodes have been removed that area needs to be avoided. We don't want to move fluid to that area because it increases the risk for lymphedema."

Durham agrees with Kellen that the human touch is part of the benefit of massage and helps with the healing process.

"In fact, if someone is near the end of their life, the light touch may be all they really want," she added. "Just being touched means so much to them. I may not apply any pressure at all."

Durham has been a massage therapist for more than 20 years and decided to take the additional training in oncology massage last year.

"It's been an amazing experience helping people with cancer get some relief so they can feel better," she said. "The positive feedback I get from my patients is incredible."

For more information about cancer prevention and treatment services available at Washington Hospital, visit To learn more about the Sandy Amos, R.N. Infusion Center, visit

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