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CCRI's Oncology Massage program helps
patients cope with cancer treatments

March 8, 2013

Massage student giving a hand massage to a patient. CCRI Oncology Massage program student Paula Kochanek gives a hand massage to patient Jackie McMillan, who is being treated for breast cancer at Saint Anne's Hospital in Fall River, Mass.

In the fight against cancer, healing takes many forms. There is, of course, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and the surgical excision of tumors, but sometimes patients need something more – a kind of comforting that escapes the notice of many hospitals.

Enter the students of the Community College of Rhode Island Oncology Massage program. They visited the Hudner Oncology Center at Saint Anne’s Hospital in Fall River, Mass., once a week for most of a semester to help ease the suffering of cancer patients there and the stress of the doctors, nurses and other staff who face a difficult job.

The CCRI students were already experienced massage therapists, many with their own practices, by the time they enrolled in the noncredit Oncology Massage program offered by the college's Workforce Partnerships. They had experience giving massages for sports training, rehabilitation and stress relief and learned how to modify their techniques to meet the unique needs of cancer patients. They learned sites on the body to avoid and how to modify their hand pressure and client positioning. An accompanying classroom component taught them about cancer pathology and treatment.

At Saint Anne’s they frequently gave patients comfort massages on the hands, neck, shoulders and feet to ease their pain, nausea or fatigue, reduce their anxiety and improve their sleep. They did the same for the patients’ family members who, like patients, also spend many long and anxious hours in the hospital.

Sometimes the therapists did not lay their hands on a patient at all – sitting and talking with them was enough to make them feel a bit better.

Treating cancer patients is a calling for many of the students, just as it is for the doctors and nurses who are found in the oncology unit.

Kathaleen Healey had a job in telecommunications that took her around the country, but she gave it up after her daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

“One of the things that helped her was for me to massage her arms and legs,” Healey said about nursing her daughter. “I did it like a mother would do for a child, not like a therapist does. Once she went into remission and I knew she would be OK, I decided I wanted to do that for others.”

Healey joined the CCRI Therapeutic Massage program in 2010 and learned enough about the practice to sign up for the Oncology Massage program. “For me this is a passion, not a profession,” she said.

SMassage student gives a hand massage to a patient.o far, the CCRI students work only with outpatients: those who live at home and regularly visit the hospital for radiation or chemo treatments. Even though these patients do not need to be inpatients at the hospital, their regular treatments can be a daylong process and there is a lot of time to feel tired, frightened or alone.

Freida Boissonneault has been undergoing cancer treatment at Saint Anne’s since July 2012. She was an inpatient at first, for 27 “long days and long nights.

“I can honestly say that the day I came to this hospital, I didn’t think I was going to leave here alive,” she said.

Boissonneault added that Saint Anne’s is a wonderful hospital and, thanks to the doctors and nurses there, she has been able to move back home again.

Boissonneault received a massage from one of the CCRI students on the last day of their clinical rotation at the hospital during the fall semester. She was undergoing an infusion of platelets and white blood cells, which are killed indiscriminately by chemotherapy. She said she likes to see the oncology massage therapists whenever her treatments coincide with their Tuesday visits.

“It definitely relaxes you,” she said. “It takes you out of where you are and what you’re going through.”

Massage for cancer patients is much different from other situations. The practitioners must be extremely gentle and sometimes work around sites where patients are attached to IVs. Hand massages are common for the oncology patients because they are relaxing while being low stress on bodies taxed by radiation or chemotherapy drugs.

Paula Kochanek gave this sort of massage to breast cancer patient Jackie McMillan. The two talked and joked as if they saw each other regularly, even though this was McMillan’s first massage session.

“It’s more than just the massage,” Kochanek said. “This is a small amount of time that you spend with the patients, and giving a listening ear, a caring heart and a caring hand is a major part of the role.”

The massage students did not neglect the doctors, nurses and other staff at Saint Anne’s who work long shifts in a physically and emotionally challenging environment. Their massages were more traditional, taking place in massage chairs and involving the deep kneading and chopping motions usually associated with the art.

Mike Fulton, a radiation therapist at Saint Anne’s, said the massages are welcome because, aside from the stress of treating those who are very ill, he does a lot of physical work lifting patients from wheelchairs and stretchers.

“I’m a cancer survivor myself and if this had been offered to me when I was going through treatment, I would have really appreciated it,” he said.

The CCRI Oncology Massage program was established by Associate Professor Regina Cobb, director of the college’s Therapeutic Massage program. An experienced massage therapist herself, she participated in an oncology massage program at Boston Medical Center in 2011 and decided to create a similar program through CCRI's Workforce Partnerships.

She worked for 15 months to turn her vision into a 40-hour oncology certificate program for massage therapists in New England. As lead instructor, Cobb has certified 12 interns in this pilot program.

Karyl Benoit, Saint Anne’s oncology outreach coordinator, said the CCRI students were welcomed and appreciated by the hospital’s patients and staff.

“As soon as you meet them, you can tell they’re authentic,” she said. “They’re caring and kind and you can tell they want to be here.”

Registration for this fall’s Oncology Massage program begins April 18. Learn more about the program and registration.


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Last Updated: 8/25/16