The pain was so severe, vibration from someone walking on the floor behind me hurt beyond belief. Normal activities like driving, bathing, cooking and even turning my head were no longer second nature. My husband helped me with daily activities and drove me to what seemed like endless doctor appointments. After months of expensive tests, failed treatments and drug therapy, I was exhausted and gave up. The daily pain was still in an acute phase with no relief in sight. I lay in bed feeling there was no hope and for many hours prayed that the good Lord would take my life. Fortunately, my prayers were not answered that day.
After all the various appointments with medical doctors (orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, and so on), there was one more treatment to try prior to surgical intervention which included daily traction of the cervical area and a 30 minute massage every other day to relieve the muscular tension. At that time I had never received a massage or bodywork of any type, so needless to say I was quite skeptical of the lotions, potions and the touch aspect of massage. By this time, the addiction to painkillers and muscle relaxers was on the horizon, as well as an erratic sleep schedule. Little by little, with each massage treatment, the acute pain was easing up and gave me hope. At the urging of my massage therapist, I eventually was weaned off the pain medications and could actually move on my own without excruciating pain. The massage treatments continued three times a week for a several months, then gradually decreased to weekly sessions. Massage was my new addiction which had many positive side effects and I felt the emotional burden being lifted. By the time the pain was manageable, I realized that a massage therapist had changed my course and had a profound impact on my life. The healing power of touch had massaged my soul, too. In addition to the massage treatments, the therapist also took an interest in identifying and eliminating triggers that may cause my condition to worsen. She evaluated my work and sleeping environments and suggested numerous changes concerning a special pillow, new chair, and computer workspace updates.
Life went on almost pain free with the exception of a few flare ups that were tamed by massage therapy. One of the triggers was definitely stress which caused pain due to tight, stiff muscles. Several years later, I decided to leave the corporate world and desired a change that was in a kinder and gentler profession. I thought about people who had influenced my life and the first profession I thought of was massage therapy. In a matter of months, I was attending massage school full time and on a daily basis was amazed by the anatomy and circulatory systems of the human body.
Changing careers in my early 40s was a little scary and exciting at the same time since it was a new field with many opportunities. The most important thing I learned early on was that massage can be hard on your hands and wrists. It is imperative to work smarter, not harder, in the massage field so that you can prolong the length of your career. Since 95 percent of my clients were requesting deep pressure, learning specialized modalities to help me perform deep tissue work was my next mission. Utilizing warmed bamboo sticks of different shapes and sizes allowed me to deliver deep luxurious pressure, using leverage that was easy on my body to perform. Clients were very receptive to receiving bamboo treatments, especially since there is a heat element and a luxurious feel to the deep pressure.
The passion I felt performing massage grew and I later decided to teach deep tissue techniques to other massage therapists in the field. At the first tradeshow I attended, I was fortunate enough to meet many professionals in this industry. I invested time in my new acquaintances from the tradeshow and they quickly grew to form working relationships.
With disbelief, during a routine checkup in 2012, the diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer stopped me in my tracks. Even though I had bi-annual screenings, the cancer had already invaded my lymphatic system and blood vessels. It was surreal to think that something could invade and ravage my body so quickly. From my knowledge gained during massage school, I knew enough to know that this was a dire situation and I had to allow my mind to think the unthinkable…. Am I going to die? My treatment regime included four months of dose dense chemotherapy to reduce the tumor size, which made me go bald within weeks. The purpose of the drugs are to destroy the cancer cells; however, unfortunately, the good cells get wiped out too, resulting in degradation of your skin, nails and hair follicles which are, of course, the most noticeable. The bone pain was excruciating at times from the shots to boost my immune system after the various chemotherapy sessions. Everyone thought I was so brave; however, I was just going through the motions since I did not have any other choice other than allowing the cancer to win. The only way I knew to cope with such a monumental diagnosis was to mentally break up the various medical interventions into unique stages of healing. When I looked at getting well and battling cancer as a large scale project, it was insurmountable. Survival was approached as a project with many time consuming steps to completion since each step had a specific beginning and end. Step one – chemotherapy; Step two – double mastectomy and lymph node dissection; Step three – radiation.
With each step of the project came physical changes and challenges that were unpleasant in nature. Having a good sense of humor and surrounding myself with others who love me unconditionally were key to getting through my project. Being totally bald was a temporary setback, where losing parts of my anatomy was a different story. While recovering from surgery, I had drain tubes hanging out of my body for a month which were painful and had to be attended to daily. My husband was my caretaker and rock during this entire cancer journey. During this post-surgical time, performing normal daily tasks were impossible due to the treatment regime that was taking a toll on my body. It does not take long for your muscles to stop functioning normally and you become too weak to move. In addition, prior to and during cancer treatment, numerous body scans and medical interventions such as radiation are taken which require the patient to lie for prolonged periods of time in unusual positions which can cause muscular strain on the neck, shoulders and back. Being caught up in the daily survival mode, not much thought was given to things that might feel good since there was not a lot of joy in daily living. Dreaming of massage was one option since I was in no shape to actually receive a full body massage and was fearful it would further harm me. One day my friend Nathalie Cecilia, a licensed massage therapist, came to my home to visit and she convinced me to sit on a barstool in the kitchen so she could have access to my back. She gently massaged me through my clothing and her loving, compassionate touch was a welcome relief to the constant pain and emotional distress I was experiencing. It left me thinking, “How could a limited touch have such a positive and monumental impact on my well-being?” In addition to feeling good, I quickly learned that incorporating massage into your healing regime helps reduce many unwanted side effects of cancer treatment.
After I healed from the surgery, the last step of the project was to do the daily radiation treatments for 35 days. After two weeks of radiation treatment, there was significant skin burns at the surgical site and axillary area. The radiology oncologist assured me that it was more important to kill the remaining cancer cells and that my skin would eventually heal.
After the completion of the various steps in my cancer project, there was a significant development and I could no longer move my arms without unbearable pain. The oncologist ordered more scans to check for bone cancer in my upper arms and shoulders. Fortunately, the scans did not detect cancer, however, being incapacitated again was frightening beyond belief.
For about a year, my life seemed to revolve around endless doctor’s appointments. Once that part of my life was over, I felt a strange sense of fear and panic. I was no longer sure of who would be taking care of me and battling for my health. My faith in God carried me through many of the dark hours, however, I needed to make the transition to wellness, and I felt no one was there in the medical field to help me. My husband was my main caregiver and I was so fortunate to have his full support and unconditional love throughout my journey. I was so thankful to the team of doctors and medical specialists who saved my life, but their job was done and now I had to find my new normal, whatever that was. At this point, I was ready to get on with life; however, my shoulders and arms were now the main source of pain. It took an orthopedic surgeon about three minutes to tell me I had a condition called frozen shoulder on both sides. It was welcome news since it was not another cancer diagnosis; however, it was just as debilitating. Once again, doing normal daily functions such as getting dressed and bathing were a challenge and required assistance from others. The doctor performed a manipulation under anesthesia (MUA) to break through the various adhesions in my shoulder capsule with the goal of reducing the many months of grueling physical therapy that was ahead of me. I felt the same hopeless feeling that I had after my whiplash years prior. Physical therapy started immediately following the MUA, along with massage treatments, and I felt that someone was watching over me again and guiding me to wellness. Could this be happening again? Massage and physical therapists were transitioning me to wellness with the power of their touch. Thinking back to the time I created the steps of my cancer project plan, I discovered that I had inadvertently omitted a Step 4 entitled healing. This critical and final step is a long journey in itself and is imperative to seeking a full recovery from a long battle with cancer.
A few months passed and I could see the improvements in my quality of daily living. My cancer journey has changed my beliefs on many things and provided clarity to what is really important in life. My full journey is not yet over, and I now pray that I might one day be able to make such a profound impact on another person’s life through massage. Doctors and medicine reached a limit, but the human spirit, the power of touch, and the gift of true healing has no bounds.
To the massage therapists in this wonderful industry: “You have power in your hands when used with caution and compassion, which can profoundly impact the lives of people with cancer, navigating them to wellness.”
There are several oncology training classes available to provide you with a good foundation to deliver non-invasive massage techniques that are healing and life altering for both the therapist and patient. The power is in YOUR hands…
Karen Lay is a breast cancer survivor, licensed massage therapist and co-owner of Bamboo-fusion®.