Cancer and Massage Therapy: One Woman’s Story

The closing session of our recent AMTA Massage Therapy Conference featured presentations by Dr. Gabriel Lopez, Oncologist at MD Cancer Center, and Suleika Jaouad, a young cancer survivor and NY Times columnist. I was honored and privileged to witness this presentation, and it was perhaps my most poignant and powerful experience of the conference.

Dr. Lopez described how massage therapy, among other holistic modalities, has provided remarkable benefits for those experiencing cancer. Patients have reported improved sleep, relief of some pain, decreased intensity and duration of nausea, and perhaps most significantly, a sense of “reclaiming ” their body and their wholeness, despite enduring typically invasive procedures. The Center is finding new avenues to integrate massage therapy as both regular and expected aspects of a comprehensive healing approach to cancer.

We then watched a video chronicling (largely in real time) the challenging and traumatic experience of Ms. Jaouad, as she confronted her cancer. I was in tears through most of this film, and especially during her talk that followed.

Her story begins after she had just graduated from Princeton at age 21, and was ready to explore the world at this new stage in her life. For several months prior to this, she had experienced symptoms such as feeling weak, being subject to infections, and significant fatigue. She went to 4 physicians and had no effective diagnosis. The 5th doctor finally put it all together, diagnosing Leukemia that was now acute since she had had symptoms for so long.

In her own words:  “Overnight, I Iost my job, my apartment and my independence”. She began conventional cancer treatment, but in 6 months, the cancer had progressed. She was deeply depressed, suffering, and “felt strange to herself”.

Her physician suggested she explore an alternative clinical program at the MD Cancer Center and massage therapy was offered as part of the program. She thought she would try it despite some doubts and misgivings. After her first massage, she “had her first “good night’s sleep” in several months. She felt better in her body, and was impressed by the presence and compassion her massage therapist brought to the session. Her therapist helped her “imagine herself and her body as a place of healing”. Suleika continued with her treatment plan, and recognized that massage was an integral and very important component as she continued on her path toward healing.

Her participation in the documentary film, produced by the NY Times, opened new opportunities for her to fulfill her desire to become a journalist. She now writes a column called “Life Interrupted”, especially directed toward young adults with cancer.

Now, at age 27, she has completed chemotherapy, and is in remission. She speaks to medical students, emphasizing that bedside manner, communication and compassion, along with the conventional medical protocols for cancer treatment, are significant contributors to the patient’s healing process. While massage therapy is not currently given much consideration as part of the treatment plan, Suleika hopes this will change.


Note: I made every effort to indicate direct quotes from the presentation. In some cases, however, I may have neglected to give adequate reference to the speaker, and perhaps inadvertently used her words as as my own in my representation of the facts. Either way, the story rings true, and was phenomenal for me to experience.




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