Kneading the stress away

photo of massage
Massage therapy helps relieve stress, pain and anxiety during cancer treatment.

It's 3 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday. Inside the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center Ambulatory Infusion Unit (AIU), patient Mahnaz G. is curled up under her oversized blanket. Behind her, cool grey clouds quickly roll by – a stark contrast to the warmth on her face and the bright pink hat atop her head. For many in the unit, it's just another treatment day. But for Mahnaz, today is a milestone: her final treatment. To celebrate, she's getting one of her favorite parts of therapy: a massage.

"I was so surprised when I found out that Ellis offered massage therapy," Mahnaz said. "I had seen other cancer centers advertise it on TV, but I didn't know Ellis had it, too."

For six years, massage therapist RuthAnne Spotts has offered comfort and relaxation services to Ellis Fischel patients like Mahnaz to help relieve stress, pain and anxiety experienced during treatment. Spotts' goal is to help patients transition from a fight-or-flight mindset to one of relaxation.

"It's sometimes hard to get patients to relax during cancer treatment," she said. "Massage therapy is a natural way to help access those 'feel-good' feelings and suppress stress chemicals."

Care beyond the clinic

In addition to in-clinic therapy, Spotts educates patients and caregivers on ways they can help themselves when she's not around. One of her favorite methods is relaxation breathing. This technique involves taking deep breaths in through the nose, expanding the diaphragm, and out through the mouth.

"I love how simple it is to help someone relax with this," Spotts said. “The best part is that anyone – regardless of whether they're receiving cancer treatment – can benefit from this technique. Not only does it relieve pain, anxiety and stress, it can even lower your blood pressure and calm the nervous system.”

Spotts also promotes at-home hand and foot massage therapy.

"After you massage someone's hands and feet for a while, you'll often start hearing deep breaths," she said. "It's all about accessing the positive chemicals in the brain and taking our minds off of the pain we're experiencing."

In Mahnaz's case, she wasn't even aware she was in pain.

"RuthAnne visited me on my first day of treatment and offered massage therapy," Mahnaz said. "I didn't know I had aches and pains, but as soon as she touched me, I realized I was hurting."

Mahnaz said she was so impressed by Spotts' services that she made it a point to schedule her treatments on days when Spotts would be at Ellis.

"The best part of treatment"

Even though a two-and-a-half-hour drive, each way, every two weeks is a large commitment for Mahnaz, she said it's worth it.

"The care at Ellis Fischel is great," she said. "Everyone – from my doctors, to the nurses and staff – is nice and caring. RuthAnne is a huge blessing and has helped me so much."

As for the massage therapy she receives, Mahnaz said, “It's the best part of treatment!"

Close collaboration

To provide patients with the highest and safest level of care possible, Spotts works closely with the Ellis Fischel care teams. She thinks of her work as a supplement to their treatment plans.

"What I offer is simple, complimentary therapy," Spotts said. "I'm here to support the doctors, nurses and patients. It's not medicine. It's not traditional. But it helps."

If you are an Ellis Fischel AIU patient and would like to request massage therapy, ask your nurse the next time you are in clinic.

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