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Massage Today
August, 2007, Vol. 07, Issue 08

The First Oncology Massage Healing Summit

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS

In May, I was honored to attend the first gathering of oncology massage therapists in North America. There were about 160 massage therapists and about 20 presenters. It might sound lofty to say this event was historic, but it was a first.

This meeting of the minds and hands was a conference in the making for several years. And for years, therapists have been longing for such an opportunity to work with people with cancer.

The conference, "Oncology Massage Healing Summit," was held at Mercy College of Northwest Ohio in Toledo. Gayle MacDonald and Tina Ferner dreamt up the notion of a conference in this area. Gayle is the author of Medicine Hands: Massage Therapy for People with Cancer, now in its second edition, and Massage for the Hospital Patient and Medically Frail Client. Tina coordinates the Integrative Therapy Department at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo.

Typically, a conference is planned by an association that charges a committee with the details, and a professional conference organizer to implement them. But there has been no such association. In this case, two people with a cheering section of many more of us carried out all of that with the devoted implementation of the Mercy College Department of Continuing Professional Education. The fact that it came off seamlessly is a wonder and a testament to the skill and foresight of the conference planners.

Gayle MacDonald began the conference with a keynote, "Holy Toledo and the Sisters of Mercy: the Sacredness of the Work We Do." Because the order of the Sisters of Mercy was the founder and foundation of Mercy Hospital, she made references to several spiritual traditions which have, as an outgrowth, a compassion embodied in ministry to the sick, and often touch is part of that healing ministry. Gayle went on to describe the movement of oncology massage, how far it has grown beyond the old, unfounded worry that massage might spread cancer, and its projection into its own future.

Indeed, the future was clearly in evidence over the weekend. Presentations covered a range of topics: approaches to Eastern medicine, finding evidence on massage and cancer on the Web, essential oils for emotional and spiritual healing, and the sharing of therapists' stories. There were many other fascinating sessions, but space limits their mention here.

Presenters came from such far-flung places as Alaska, Brazil, Toronto, New York, Colorado and Montreal. I attended several excellent presentations. Jamie Elswick spoke and demonstrated work on healing the scars of cancer surgery. Charlotte Versagi demonstrated lymphatic drainage for the person with cancer and Isabel Adkins presented on the trauma of cancer and treatments. Each of these presentations deepened my understanding of massage for people with cancer, as well as my belief in the power of the work.

But, as it often is with conferences, conversations around the edges of the formal presentations are as bountiful as the presentations themselves. In what seemed like hundreds of conversations packed into two short days, I heard therapists networking about hospital programs, funding, research, community service and education. (For some sense of the richness of the program, the proceedings and some of the education sessions, see

At dinner one night, I sat at a table with seven other therapists. Several of us were massage researchers, or interested in the research of massage. The question, "What is the healing ingredient in massage therapy?" came up. One therapist said it was that he covered the whole body in his sessions; that the client was helped to feel whole and perfect and attended to in all of their wholeness by his whole-body approach. Another therapist said she felt it was "our humanity" that made massage therapy so healing for people. Another said, simply, "our compassion."

In one of the most important outcomes of the conference, a groundswell of support for an oncology massage therapy association solidified into some infrastructure for the association. When it develops into a Web presence and entity, I will post its Web site on my own at And when a second conference is scheduled, I'll post that, too!

Just last week, I received a message on my machine from someone looking for a massage therapist for a friend with cancer. Her friend had sought massage, but had been turned away by a therapist who told her it could spread her cancer. I am still surprised to hear this old myth, and I did what I could to help in this situation. But I've had many such phone calls over the years. They stand in sharp contrast to the growing support for caring, careful massage for people with cancer.

It was a joy being at a conference where that concern was a phantom of the past. It was a joy to see how far the work has come. Finally, it was a joy to see the energy of those around me engaged, not only in moving on from that old fear, but moving forward with seven-league boots in the profession's natural next steps. Our compassion, our humanity, our whole-body approach to healing - all of these should serve us well.

Click here for more information about Tracy Walton, LMT, MS.


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