Nancy Curtis’ first chemotherapy treatment at Spokane Valley Cancer Center was Halloween 2013. Terrified and anxious, she sat waiting for the needle, infusion of chemicals and the unknown.
Then a woman offered her an impromptu reiki treatment.
“Of course I didn’t have any idea what reiki was,” said Curtis, 52, a Missoula high school teacher, who embraced the subtle energy work that is sometimes described as a “jump start” for the human battery.
She accepted the offer by reiki practitioner Tracy Morgan, also a cancer survivor, who gives private treatments and sessions at Spokane Valley Cancer Center.
“It was wonderful,” said Curtis, who is still battling cancer. “I could sleep through a good portion of the chemo treatment and it calmed me way down.”
She gets regular reiki and has even taken a couple of reiki courses along with her husband to learn how to do the subtle energy work. He does reiki on her every night before bed. She also gets regular massages.
Massage makes Curtis feel good physically but she said reiki keeps her calm.
“I don’t think I could have navigated through these waters without complementary healing,” Curtis said. “It kept me upright and it kept me whole.”
Cancer patients are opening themselves to complementary therapies – specifically massage therapy and reiki – to help ease the pain, nausea, stress, anxiety and isolation they feel.
After years of skepticism, even a period where people feared massage could actually spread cancer, doctors and hospitals are starting to embrace the complementary therapies that patients are seeking as long as the body and energy work doesn’t interfere with medical treatment.
Locally, none of the cancer centers are affiliated with oncology massage therapists although there are several therapists working in the region.
Jennifer Gilcrist, spokeswoman for Providence Regional Cancer Center, said even though these complementary therapies aren’t currently offered “that may likely change in the future.” Spokane Valley Cancer Center promotes Morgan’s reiki services and Cancer Care Northwest offers yoga classes for its patients.
Morgan said it’s important people understand reiki – just like massage – isn’t a cure and that doctors are aware of complementary treatments their patients are receiving. She views reiki more as emotional support. Her clients benefit from the energy work but also from simple human touch and having someone spend time with them.
“It’s good for cancer patients because there is no manipulation of the body,” she said. “When you are going through chemo, radiation and surgery, you don’t want to manipulate their tissues.”
After a reiki treatment, Morgan said the recipient usually goes into a state of relaxation, somewhat like REM sleep but more lucid. Their mind quiets and for a brief time they can “take a vacation from worrying or obsessing.”
“It just makes a lot of sense,” said Gayle MacDonald, who is one of the leading instructors for oncology massage and teaches around the world. She has worked with cancer patients at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland since 1994 when the university’s medical board asked MacDonald’s massage school to work with them.
“It’s the simple act of touch,” she said. “Americans aren’t prone to do it in a deep-meaning way. It makes you feel connected to human race. It makes you feel like I still am loveable.”
That’s huge for a cancer patient who has lost body parts, hair and strength. She said massage, a very light touch, can help people relax, sleep and even regain energy.
MacDonald teaches massage students how to adjust their touch for cancer patients, focusing on calming the body and letting it rest. The work is somewhat counter to what massage therapists initially learn – how to strip and wring muscles.
“It’s not as vigorous, it’s not focused on the muscles,” MacDonald said. “It’s much more on the skin and the nervous system.”
The American Cancer Society’s website lists and defines 23 different types of manual healing and physical touch modalities, everything from acupuncture and cancer salves to electromagnetic therapy and reflexology.
Medical research studies are starting to validate massage and reiki, although the Society for Oncology Massage acknowledges that “oncology massage has a long way to go when it comes to research, but the momentum is building in the direction of credible, well-designed studies that will lead the way to greater integration of massage in cancer care.”
Between 1900 and 1990 there were an average of 31 citations per year in the scientific literature referring to cancer and massage or oncology and massage, according to the Society for Oncology Massage website. From 1991 to 2000, there were 294 citations per year. From 2001 to 2005 the number jumped to 1,106 citations per year. From 2006 to 2008 there were 1,370 citations per year.
Millie Haynes, 64, went to massage school after she became disillusioned with her nursing career, tired of passing pills and not spending quality time with parents.
“I think the public is demanding more than pharmacology,” Haynes said.
Initially she was interested in geriatric massage and worked with people in nursing homes. Then her sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. She learned of MacDonald’s work using massage with cancer patients. She took a course from one of MacDonald’s students.
“Once people get a massage they understand the benefits,” she said.
It frustrates her that people are more accepting of massage but that many still don’t want to pay for the expertise and instead think it should always be a volunteer service. She worries that encourages people who aren’t trained well, especially those working with cancer patients.
“It’s not just a fly-by-night thing,” she said. “You really need to know what you are doing.”
Haynes provides massage for women who participate in retreats for cancer survivors sponsored by St. Joseph Family Center Retreat. The weekend events are designed to help women relax and enjoy some pampering.
Sister Patricia Novak, the center’s spirituality healing arts program director, said the retreats are important to help women and that everyone always looks forward to Haynes massages.
“One moment of peace can lead to a whole body of wellness,” she said.
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