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September 22, 2019  
UTERINE NEWS: Feature Story

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  • Oncology Massage Can Help Breast Cancer Patients

    Oncology Massage Can Help Breast Cancer Patients – If Done Cautiously and Correctly


    October 24, 2006

    By: Jean Johnson for Uterus1

    Part One

    When Molly Ivins, author and irreverent syndicated columnist from Texas, was treated for breast cancer, she received all manner of tender-hearted condolences from well-meaning friends. That was all fine and dandy, she quipped, but what she really needed was a stiff couple of drinks.

    We at Uterus1 love Ivins’ pluck and appreciate her very human need for emotional release. Rather than putting alcohol into a body that’s been put to some severe tests though, we think a better way to lift the spirits is with massage by therapists specially trained in working with oncology patients.
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    Gayle MacDonald, MS, LMT, can be reached at [email protected] Her books are:
  • Medicine Hands: Massage Therapy for People with Cancer (1999). She is currently updating this work for a revised edition.
  • Massage for the Hospital Patient (2005).

    Monthly breast self exams are simple and easy – and can save your life:
  • Face the mirror with your arms at your sides. Look at your breasts for lumps, dimples, unusual shapes, or other changes in appearance.
  • Repeat the procedure with your arms raised above your head.
  • Now, with your hands on your hips and with your chest muscles tensed, look for lumps or changes.
  • Finally, lean over and observe your breasts one more time for any changes.

  • It was our good fortune to find Gayle MacDonald, MS, LMT, the woman who’s writing the textbooks for this burgeoning field. Here and in Part Two, MacDonald shares her thoughts on what oncology massage can do for women with breast cancer. She will also explain how to avoid what she calls “cowboys,” or massage therapists who are not sufficiently trained.

    Gayle MacDonald: Pioneer in Oncology Massage

    With her master’s in science and a license in massage therapy, MacDonald has written two textbooks on the subject of massage for clients who are ill. She is regularly invited to teach courses in oncology massage at schools throughout the continental United States and in Hawaii. Furthermore, she started the oncology massage program currently in place at the Oregon School of Massage in Portland.

    “There wasn’t any special training in 1994 when I got interested in oncology massage, so I had to learn on the job at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU),” said MacDonald. “At that time I was teaching at another massage school in Portland, and the volunteer coordinator at the OHSU hospital asked if we could bring massage students in for patients. I’ve since moved the program over to the Oregon School of Massage where it’s continued to build every year.”

    Benefits of Massage for Women with New Breast Cancer Diagnoses

    MacDonald’s position is that there’s a place for oncology massage at every stage in the breast cancer experience, from when women first learn they have a tumor through the treatment process.

    “Say a woman has just been diagnosed and hasn’t had any treatment yet,” she said. “Massage is really helpful for anxiety. It just helps people to slow down and relax and think clearly. At this stage when they’ve just been diagnosed, patients have a lot of decisions to make in a relatively short time frame. Sometimes they get in high states of panic, so massage is helpful in enabling them to manage the stress associated with this diagnosis.”

    MacDonald underscores that research has demonstrated that massage is effective in reducing anxiety and pain. “Other benefits of massage have not been directly proven, but studies have shown that massage definitely reduces anxiety and pain.”

    With that point established, MacDonald proceeds to explain how oncology massage, if done correctly by someone trained in the techniques, can do much to help women with breast cancer manage the disease and the treatment.

    Oncology Massage for Chemotherapy

    “Then let’s say that they progress to treatment: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or all of the above,” MacDonald said. “The research is mixed on massage and nausea – but if you go by anecdotal evidence, patients tell stories about how once they started foot massage it helped them not be nauseated for the first time since they started their chemo.

    “For some people, massage can even help with things like anticipatory nausea,” she added. “For example, if people go to a chemotherapy clinic that has a massage therapist, they might be more likely to think, ‘Oh good, I get to go have a massage today,’ instead of focusing on the chemotherapy and its side effects.”

    Just having one’s mind directed to a pleasing outcome instead of a grim one can have powerful consequences and minimize nausea, concludes MacDonald. She also states that simply making a connection with a massage therapist can go a long way toward making the path cancer patients walk a more friendly and reassuring one.

    She says that some oncologists like Judy Schmidt, M.D., in Missoula, Mont., have full time massage therapists, like Sue Lenander. “Sue is the first one patients meet before they even get started, and she’s there when they go in for their first chemotherapy session,” MacDonald said. “They know Sue, and it helps.

    “The point is that when people are in for treatment they are poked and prodded. To simply have someone touch them with gentle hands makes it bearable. As one of my patients put it, ‘Someone in a uniform coming in to give instead of take.’”

    See part 2 of this story for MacDonald’s observations on massage for radiation and mastectomy, as well as avoiding ‘cowboy’ massage therapists.

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