Massage is much more than an indulgence for many. In capable hands, it is a powerful tool for easing pain, inflammation, and stress. Oncology patients are undergoing one of the most difficult experiences emotionally, mentally, and physically and could benefit from the healing and soothing effects of relaxing skincare and massage treatments. However, even these services can be damaging to the compromised body of an oncology patient or someone in long-term survivorship following chemotherapy. “There are no one-size-fits-all answers in providing treatments to oncology clients,” says Johnnette du Rand, LMT, MLD, NCTMB, co-founder and director of education for Greet The Day, an organization focused on improving the quality of life for people affected by cancer through education, massage, and restorative skincare. “Everything is individual-specific, and depends on type of cancer, type of treatment, and experience of side effects.” And there are millions of current and former cancer patients—the National Cancer Institute estimates nearly 14 million Americans have a history of cancer—in need of healing massage and gentle skincare treatments tailored to their conditions.
Spa professionals must understand the immediate physical effects of chemotherapy and the cancer itself to provide the proper services. There is a wide range of side effects that can be further aggravated by improper spa treatments. The skin, during and following treatment, is weakened and sensitized. It can be extremely dry, susceptible to rashes, and exhibit redness. “Patients undergoing chemo or radiation therapy have a compromised immune system and should avoid chemical peels, elective cosmetic procedures and surgery, exfoliating treatments, and harsh skincare products that contain acids,” says Christine Watson, founder of myBody. Watson is a two-time cancer survivor whose own skin struggles inspired myBody, a gentle skincare line sold in physicians’ offices, to provide products for others undergoing similar treatments and side effects. In addition, any services involving heat are off limits.
A preventative regimen of gentle skincare can minimize both the short- and long-term physical effects of chemotherapy. All products should have soothing, hydrating, and protective ingredients for the best results. “Look for a clean product line that is free of parabens, sulfates, dyes, phthalates, xenoestrogens, and acids,” says Watson. “Products should be antioxidant-fortified, as well as ultra-hydrating and calming.” Simple applications can offer vast benefits to these fatigued clients and their stressed skin. Du Rand also recommends products containing aloe vera, argan, avocado and borage oils, chamomile, evening primrose oil, ginger, lavender, oatmeal, shea butter, and zinc oxide.
Other more serious physical conditions including low blood cell counts, a high risk of blood clots, bone metastases and pain, fatigue, and removed lymph nodes and lymphedema brought on by cancer and its treatment change the body, so spa therapists must make adjustments when providing services. Patients who have undergone treatment for cancers related to lymph nodes—breast, ovarian, prostate, and head, neck, and thyroid—are at especially high risk for the irreversible lymphedema, which is swelling in an arm or leg caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system. To avoid causing additional injury, therapists must be trained to ask the right questions, so clients feel comfortable sharing. “Modifications are easy, and therapists need to know if they can do them,” says Karey York, LMT, MLD, a Greet The Day educator. “If you do this well, you will forever have a client and ensured safety.”
Spa therapists can provide much needed emotional care and encouragement for clients through the healing power of touch. Clinical research demonstrates that massage and bodywork are effective in reducing pain, nausea, and anxiety and improve the quality of sleep and encourage a positive outlook. Modifications make these benefits possible for oncology patients. “For a long time, the massage community thought increasing circulation would cause cancer cells to spread,” says du Rand. “But the rules and guidelines have changed, and advanced training prepares therapists to recognize and safely work within a framework of clinical considerations unique to each client and can change from week to week depending on where they are in treatment.” Due to the ease of triggering serious complications such as lymphedema, only oncology-massage-trained therapists should work with cancer patients or those in long-term survivorship. Through experience, professionals gain the ability to recognize and safely work within clinically established guidelines and adapt to each client’s unique circumstances.
Many luxury spas have recognized and filled the need for customizeable oncology treatments. Spa Gregorie’s Day Spas & Salons (multiple locations) claims the largest number of oncology-trained technicians—massage and dual therapists, nail technicians, and estheticians—in the country. These spas tailor skincare and bodywork services to address each individual’s requirements and offer an Oncology Massage ($55, 30 minutes; $99, 60 minutes; $124, 75 minutes; $149, 1 hour 30 minutes) and an Oncology Facial ($100, 60 minutes; $110, 75 minutes). “Receiving massage or skincare is now encouraged by many healthcare providers for clients undergoing chemotherapy,” says Michael Conte, assistant spa director of Montage Hotels & Resorts. “However, it is always important to make sure that precautions are taken. Our therapists who practice oncology massage have been thoroughly trained to fully understand indications and contraindications of oncology massage, as well as understand radiation, drug treatments, and surgical procedures and techniques.”
Other services can provide a visible, physical way for oncology patients, especially breast cancer survivors, to return to a more normal way of life. Nouveau Contour’s Intelligent, the first computerized permanent cosmetics device, is often used to restore areola pigmentation. It replicates the appearance of areolae (even the illusion of nipple protrusion), reduces the appearance of radiotherapy marks, and diffuses scarring from mastectomies and other breast surgery. Technicians vary the color combinations and needle configurations on the machine to achieve optimal, lasting results for patients. The healing process gets a kick-start for these clients, who can look in the mirror and begin to see themselves instead of the scars.
All clients deserve compassionate touch, and including oncology-specific offerings on your spa’s menu provides that much-needed healing. “Because of the high levels of emotional and physical stress these guests experience, they are in a constant state of the fight-or-flight response,” says Conte. “Massage, facials, and meditation stimulate the parasympathetic system responsible for rest. Guests report feeling reconnected to their bodies after receiving these services.”