Oncology Massage (4) – Hospice

I had planned on writing about this topic for a while now, but with recent events it seems even more necessary. Elizabeth Edwards passed away last week after a long struggle against breast cancer. Click here to learn more about her.

It seems like there are breakthroughs every day when it comes to cancer research. Statistics show overwhelming progress with how we’re treating and managing the disease. Cancer is becoming more just something to live with instead of something to die from.

Still, it happens. The cancer might be discovered too late, or it might spread too fast. Further treatment would only cause more pain and prolong the suffering. Instead of dying in the confines of a hospital, though, many people are choosing the compassionate care of a hospice.

In America, we (yes, I’m generalizing here) don’t like thinking or talking about death. Death is a frightening concept, seen essentially as the end to all things one knows. And so discussions about death are systematically avoided; interacting with the dying is done with uneasiness behind closed doors.

While this mindset has plenty wrong with it in a general sense – that is, living in constant fear of an unavoidable fact – imagine what harm it does to a terminally ill patient. The loved one becomes a taboo, representing what people fear most. Interactions are suddenly colored with pity and sympathy; conversations are marked with hesitations so that feelings get spared and no one confronts the obvious.

But by its very nature, the hospice is a different world. Death is no longer something to fear – it happens, sure, but the doctors, nurses, and others are there to make the transition as agreeable as possible.

What can massage do for the dying client? It can provide the client with a safe space, where he or she can relax, find calm, and escape reality for a moment. Massage, as with everything else offered at a hospice, helps to remind the client that he or she is loved and cared for.

Touch is often used as a tool of comfort – holding a fearful child’s hand or giving a hug to an upset friend – effective when words are not. And just like at the beginning of life, touch can be the most important way to communicate at the end of life. Massage therapists are good at touching; that’s our profession. But we can also be teachers. Instructing the family or caregiver in basic massage techniques is a wonderful way for them to connect with their loved one during such an important time. Light strokes to apply lotion or just basic hand and foot holds are very easy for non-professionals to learn.

And while massaging clients in hospice care can be extremely welcoming and beneficial, there’s yet another way to be useful in these situations – massaging the caregivers. The logic behind it is hard to refute: in order to take care of someone else in the most complete and effective way possible, you need to start by taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, most caregivers find themselves too busy taking care of their loved ones to find a spare moment for relaxation.

But they do need it. Studies show that spouses who act as caregivers report as much (or more) anxiety as the person in care [source]. It’s easy to imagine how caregivers can become so overwhelmed and exhausted. And exhaustion will just breed more exhaustion, more stress and anxiety, with nothing to break the cycle.

Luckily, massage is there to help. The sessions don’t need to be long or elaborate; just a quick, seated massage when they have a small break. Short, 20-30 minute massage sessions have shown to significantly decrease anxiety, depression and fatigue in caregivers [source]. The best thing about having massage therapists available in hospice settings is that they can work freely with both populations. The caregivers don’t need to leave the hospice or even set aside much time in their already overburdened schedule.


The best part about massage is its flexibility. A ten minute foot rub to lower anxiety before a radiation treatment; an hour-long session working to regain full shoulder motion after a mastectomy; a light massage in a hospice bed whose purpose is more emotional than physical. It would be impossible for me list all of the times and places in which massage can help, just as I could never emphasize enough how beneficial a caring touch can be. Oncology massage isn’t unique because the techniques are vastly different from the norm; it’s unique because of how integral massage can be in treatment and recovery.


Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Benefits
Part Three: Adjustments
Part Four: Hospice

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