The right touch - ‘It was great to have a place to go where I could close my eyes and switch off’
Cancer patients are often turned away from spas, but that's set to change with treatments designed for those living with the disease, writes Celine Naughton
When three Irish spas refused to give her a massage because she had cancer, primary school teacher Sinéad Kavanagh says she felt embarrassed. And according to a British charity set up to encourage spas here and in the UK to open their doors to cancer patients, her experience is not unusual.
Sinéad (36) went through a gruelling year when, in 2013, she felt a lump in her throat. During routine allergy tests at Beaumont Hospital, she asked the team to take a look.
"Two weeks later, I had an ultrasound and things spiralled from there," she says. "I had a 3.5cm tumour which had started to spread. I was treated with radioactive iodine, during which I was quarantined in an isolation room for five days, had two to three showers a day and drank gallons of water to flush the radiation out of me.
"I was told that if the diagnosis had come a month or two later, the cancer would have spread to my lungs. But thankfully, it was caught in time and in December 2014, I was given the all-clear."
In the intervening period, Sinéad made several attempts to treat herself to some much-wanted spa treatments. Yet, having bravely endured the isolation of the radiation chamber during her treatment, she was unprepared for the isolation she felt when spas turned her away.
"Anytime I filled out the consultation form and they saw that I'd had cancer, the blanket response was, 'Oh, we can't do that'. When I asked why, they said that massage could spread or even reignite my cancer.
"I felt embarrassed and wondered if this disease was going to affect every aspect of my life. Having been so sick, I badly wanted to be pampered. My body was tired and sore, my joints ached and I'd put on weight from the treatment, which did nothing for my self-esteem.
"I think some therapists are ill-informed. Cancer is not a rare disease and I think spas should train their staff in appropriate massages for anyone with a history of cancer."
Sinéad's experience is all too common, according to Marc Innes, founder of the School of Natural Therapies in London, who trains massage therapists in spas throughout the UK and, more recently, in Ireland in special techniques for use on clients with cancer. He says the Made for Life Cancer Touch Therapy course was developed following advice from oncology massage teachers and advisers from the Macmillan Trust.
"People with cancer are sometimes treated like lepers," he says. "One English woman seeking a facial was told, 'sorry love, we wouldn't touch you with a barge pole'.
"In the spa sector, there's a fear bred into therapists about massaging people with cancer, but such fears are unfounded. We need to educate those in the industry, because people with cancer have been ostracised for too long.
"Ten years ago, it was believed that massage could spread the circulation of cancer cells through the lymphatic system, but there is no evidence that's the case. Therapists certainly have to be careful in using the right techniques and products that won't irritate or harm skin that's been sensitised due to chemo or radiotherapy. But there's no reason why anyone can't enjoy the healing powers of a therapeutic touch."
He devised the programme in collaboration with Amanda Barlow, who set up the Made for Life Foundation in 2008 to provide wellness days and nurturing treatments for cancer patients. She says that 75pc of her clients reported having been turned away from spas.
"The statistics are unlikely to be any different in Ireland," she says. "Our accredited Cancer Touch Therapy training course enables spas, managers and therapists to confidently open their doors to anyone going through cancer and make sure that people with cancer are not isolated. The comfort of a nurturing massage can be tailored to suit people who have had radiotherapy, surgery or other treatments. It's also great for people with MS and other conditions, and helps relieve anxiety and stress."
This year, the Ciuin Spa & Wellness Centre at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan, and the Simplicité Spa in Straffan, Co Kildare, trained their staff in Made for Life Cancer Touch Therapy and offer a range of treatments, all using Made for Life Organics products.
But while some spas may not yet cater for customers with a history of cancer, local cancer care centres across the country welcome them with open arms and a healing touch.
"These are safe places where people can come and enjoy uplifting massage treatments by qualified therapists," says Briga Gorman, Nurse Manager and experienced touch therapist at the Lakelands Area Retreat and Cancer Centre (LARCC) in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
"We have Pamper Days where people can come on their own or with a friend or family member and enjoy a touch therapy massage, reflexology and meditation. They're complementary treatments that help to ease pain and anxiety, and in some cases alleviate the side effects of treatment.
"It's nice to be able to chill out and know that you're in safe hands, with staff who are properly trained and up to date. We always get the consent of the individual's consultant or GP, which gives the patient further reassurance that the treatments come with medical approval.
"Local cancer support centres like ours provide a sanctuary where people can take time out, enjoy some well-deserved pampering and be supported in their recovery and emotional well-being."
Mother-of-two Irene Gilmore says the touch therapy she received at the LARCC centre helped her cope physically and mentally with the rigours of medical treatment. Diagnosed with breast cancer last April, just before her 41st birthday, she had surgery two weeks later, followed by intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Each week throughout her treatment, Irene attended the LARCC for reflexology and other massages, and continues to this day with monthly sessions.
"Not only was it relaxing and good for my mental well-being, it significantly eased some of the physical side effects of the treatment," she says. "I'd developed neuropathy, which included numbness in my fingers and toes, and massage helped that a lot. It was great to have a place to go where I could close my eyes and switch off. I slept better too.
"Every now and then I enjoy spa days with my friends, but I always call in advance to find out if the spa offers appropriate treatments by qualified staff. I'd like to see more spas having at least one therapist trained in cancer care. Meanwhile though, I think it's important for anyone with cancer to disclose their condition and have that conversation before reaching the spa because what's worse than being turned away is putting your body in the hands of someone who isn't qualified."
According to the Irish Cancer Society, there is no evidence to suggest massage therapy can spread cancer, but direct pressure over a tumour should be avoided. Deep tissue massage is not advised, but gentle, therapeutic massage performed by a qualified and experienced therapist can help relieve muscle soreness, stiffness and spasms, aid relaxation and improve sleep. The society recommends that patients consult their doctor before opting for any massage therapy.