by Nick Lakoff, CMT
Almost a decade ago, I had one of the most profound experiences in my massage therapy career. One of my best friends had asked me to meet with her cousin at my massage therapy center about getting some massage sessions for her father. I of course agreed and had her come in and I sat down with her to talk in one of the massage treatment rooms. She told me that her father was terminally ill with cancer and was considering getting him massage to make his last days more comfortable. It was clearly a very emotional period for her and I was careful to be as kind and considerate as possible. She explained to me that her father had been a smoker all his life and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. They did some exploratory surgery into his lungs and closed him right up since the cancer was everywhere. They had put him on a radiation therapy protocol for a short time but his cancer had metastasized aggressively to the point where any continued efforts would just degrade the quality of his remaining days. At this point it was just a matter of months before the cancer won the campaign it was waging against his body.
His daughter asked me questions about massage and its effects and its use with patients with cancer. I told her what I knew, which is that there has never been any documented medical proof that massage could be detrimental to someone with cancer – in fact, it is quite the contrary. At the very least, massage helps someone suffering with cancer to reconnect with their body by which they have felt betrayed being afflicted by such a terrible disease. Massage can temporarily ease the side effects of radiation and chemo therapies. It can help with dealing with the mental and physical pain associated with cancer. Massage also has a positive impact on the immune system by reducing stress which reduces levels of the hormone Cortisol which weakens the body’s immune response. I told her that I would be happy to take her father as a client. Just to be on the safe side, at the end of our meeting I asked her to consult with her father’s oncologist to see if he had any objections with my performing massage on him. She agreed and said she would and with that we said our goodbyes. With the oncologist’s blessing, she returned with her father a week later for his first session.
Giancarlo had immigrated to Canada as a young man from Italy and started working in the construction industry from a very early age. The man I met was obviously a shadow of the man he once was but you could see the strength and pride in his eyes. When he walked in to the center he waived off his daughters help, wanting to walk in unassisted. His English was rudimentary, and so was his French, but we were able to understand one another. I had determined that doing a conventional table massage would not be possible in this case. Giancarlo had suffered a fractured rib when he slipped trying to close a window. His bones, weakened by the radiation therapy, caused his rib to snap when he hit the window sill. His chest had been cut into for the exploratory surgery and lying in a prone position for him was uncomfortable. I decided that using a massage chair was the perfect solution. Once I got him onto the chair and adjusted properly, I started the massage. I was using a fraction of the force I would normally because of his condition and because older patients in general are more sensitive. This being his first massage ever, this was especially true. One thing that I did not expect was feeling the tumors that were growing in several areas in his upper body. For a brief moment I had to compose myself as I was confronted by this man’s impending mortality and a wave of emotion came over me. I summoned all my senses and abilities determined to make this as pleasant an experience as I could. After the session I helped him onto his feet and helped him dress and brought him to his daughter who was in the waiting room. A few days later I spoke to the friend who had referred them to me and asked her how he had liked his massage. She said that he had experienced some discomfort afterwards and didn’t seem to want to return. Although as massage therapists we have to stay objective and discomfort following a massage happens from time to time, it affected me. I wondered if I could have done anything differently, but the answer was no. I thought that would be the last I would see of him and was sad that it couldn’t have been a better experience for him, especially in his condition.
Imagine my surprise then to see that he had another appointment with me the following week. Apparently he had insisted to his daughter that he return. After that day he came regularly for 3 months and really enjoyed his sessions with me. I got to learn quite a bit about him including some things that he had never revealed to anyone. One day his daughter called me to tell me he was too weak to come to the center but wanted to know if I would come to their house. I normally didn’t do house calls but in this case I made an exception. Sadly, it turned out to be the last time I saw Giancarlo. I saw his daughter at the funeral and she took me aside to thank me for what I had done for her father and that he looked forward to every appointment with me and was so sad when he didn’t have the strength to come to the center anymore. To this day, from time to time, I remember Giancarlo and our sessions together. I was truly grateful to have met him and have the opportunity to make his last few days on this earth a little more comfortable. If you have someone who is in end of life care, offering massage in this transitional time is truly a wonderful gift.
Nick Lakoff is a certified practitioner in the following disciplines: Swedish Massage, Sports Massage, Reflexology, Acupressure, Myo-Fascial Release, Massage for Pregnancy, Swedish Chair Massage, Hot Stone Massage and Reiki.