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Published: Monday, 3/12/2012

Oncology massage therapy helps patients deal with cancer treatments

BY ROSE RUSSELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Cancer survivor Debbie Shoemaker gets a message from Tina Ferner at Mercy St. Anne Hospital in West Toledo. Cancer survivor Debbie Shoemaker gets a message from Tina Ferner at Mercy St. Anne Hospital in West Toledo.
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Among the fears that grip cancer patients is whether they will be able to cope with the nausea, loss of sleep, fatigue, and overall diminished quality of life that are common during treatment of the disease.

The Mercy Cancer Center offers a treatment that hails from ancient times and relieves pain.

Oncology massage therapy has been offered for about a decade to cancer patients at these Mercy hospitals: St. Vincent Medical Center, St. Charles, and St. Anne. Interest in oncology massage has grown so that Mercy hospitals now treat 2,000 patients a year.

“The patients love it,” said Tina Ferner, coordinator for the Integrative Medicine Department for the Mercy Cancer Center. “They say they are so relaxed that they forget they have cancer. The medical staff likes it because it helps patients get through their treatment.”

Cancer survivor Debbie Shoemaker, 54, of West Toledo, agrees with Ms. Ferner.

“When you are going through cancer you have so much stress and worry and anxiety,” said Ms. Shoemaker, who was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in October, 2010. Following a lumpectomy, she had 33 treatments of radiation. Since then, she has enjoyed about a dozen, 30-minute oncology massage treatments that have helped her cope.

“You get in there and she massages your head to release the tension. I had trouble sleeping and there are certain points in your foot she would press and it seemed that I would sleep better after those massages,” Ms. Shoemaker added.

Without the massages, she believes her ability to battle cancer would have been far more difficult.

“I would have had a harder time getting through the radiation if I didn’t have the massages. They helped me to relax more, and they took the worry away, and there was less stress about everything that was going on with my body through radiation,” Ms. Shoemaker said.

Ms. Ferner, a licensed massage therapist who specializes in oncology massage, was a dietician and member of a stem cell transplant team 15 years ago, when she was also a massage student.

“I volunteered to give massages to patients who had become very nauseated, and that nausea significantly dropped in cancer patients who got high doses of chemotherapy and who were hospitalized about three weeks,” she said.

Consequently, some $3,000 was saved on each patient who received the massage therapy. Of course, that got the hospital’s attention. That amount was documented in a study of cost-effectiveness, Ms. Ferner said.

The Mercy system is one of a few U.S. hospitals that employs oncology massage therapy. Therapists are licensed and specially trained. Ms. Ferner is one of two such therapists with an additional 400 hours of training in the national oncology certification program.

That extensive instruction has given the hospital and this region further distinction.

“I have brought the coursework back to Toledo and have brought in hundreds of therapists to the hospital who do part of the additional 400 hours here,” Ms. Ferner said.

As a matter of fact, Ms. Shoemaker has benefited from that experience too. She has made herself available to those in training to do oncology massage.

The Toledo training effort operates in conjunction with the Peregrine Institute in Santa Fe.

Massage therapy is expansive. It includes yoga, chair yoga, and fitness classes. Guided imagery is used to help patients heal and relax to manage nausea, fatigue, and sleep problems. In partner massage, patients and caregivers learn how to give each other massages.

Also offered are lymphatic and scar tissue massage. A patient favorite is Eastern oncology massage, Ms. Ferner said. Warm rocks and special oils from India are infused on acupressure points; the therapist first gives a foot massage, then moves to the lower leg, belly, back, neck, and head.

“The origins of all these therapies are thousands of years old,” Ms. Ferner said. “I do a lot of networking on the national level and it’s not real common.”

The oncology massage therapy is free to some patients.

“We do serve a lot of under and non-insured patients who would never be able to afford a massage without it being free,” Ms. Ferner said.

She said those patients get a massage almost on a weekly basis. Chemo patients are massaged during their treatment, and radiation patients get massages after that treatment.

Contact Rose Russell at rrussell@theblade.com or 419-724-6178.



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