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Cancer and Massage

By Tracy Walton, LMT, MS

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Choosing Our Words Wisely ... Language Matters

When you visit a massage therapy website or pick up a rack card for massage therapy services, one of the first things you might register is how a practitioner refers to you. Are you a patient or a client? A diabetic, or a person with diabetes? A cancer survivor, or a person with a cancer history? You look at how they discuss their clients, and their work.

These terms are also important in our professional conversations, when we discuss our work with others. Whether it's an informal social media thread, or a conversation with a nurse, language matters.

Debates about language can quickly become passionate and fierce. When does a label describe a person, and when does it limit or reduce someone to—well—a label? When does a label reveal a personal bias, or a treasured group identity? Many people throw off labels entirely. Others embrace them. Most people identify with some labels, but not others.

One of our professional obligations is to use thoughtful language about our work and about the people we serve. Language has the power to welcome, reassure and support people. It also has the power to offend, injure, or dismiss people.

In cancer care, massage therapists have many different ways to describe their clients and their work. Do we do oncology massage? Massage therapy for people with cancer? Something else?

How We Talk about Clients

"Person-first" or "People-first" language began in movements for the rights of people with disabilities. It designates the person as most important, followed by the diagnosis or disability. Following this lead, I choose "client with cancer," "clients with cancer and cancer histories," or "people with cancer and cancer histories."

The person-first approach honors the person. This is essential, because people tell us that cancer treatment can make them feel more like a disease or a body part than a person. Yet some of the descriptors above can also feel like a mouthful. After repeating, "clients with cancer and cancer histories," many times, it's worth searching for a sensible shorthand alternative.

For that, "oncology client," or "oncology massage client," are strong possibilities. This shorthand is not person-first, but it emphasizes the work I do, and the context in which I do it. It does not focus on the client's diagnosis so much as the clinical aspect: I am providing services in cancer care.

Choosing Our Words Wisely ... Language Matters - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Anything But a "Cancer Client"

Other attempts at shorthand, resulting in "the cancer client," are well-intended but come off as less sensitive. It is possible that "cancer client" came when "cancer patient" was transplanted from the medical setting to the massage therapy setting.

Cancer client sounds awkward to me. It sounds too much like "cancer person," and I start visualizing people in packs, all sharing a diagnosis. Even "breast cancer client," while making it easier to discuss appropriate massage care, can feel reductionist. "Client with breast cancer" only takes a microsecond longer to say or write.

Trying this on: "cancer client," "thyroid cancer client," "pancreatic cancer client." Although these call up common clinical considerations, they don't sound clinical, nor as sensitive. It doesn't describe how I think about my clients, or care for them. It doesn't describe the context.

Moreover, "cancer client" more flagrantly violates the person-first rule. I always feel a little twitchy when I hear it. Better would be something like "oncology client," or "oncology massage client."

Anything but "cancer massage"

This brings us to the language describing the work itself. When I hear "cancer massage," I imagine someone directly massaging a tumor, which we would certainly not do. We take pains to learn about any and all tumor sites in order to avoid pressing on them. "Cancer massage" doesn't sound clinical. I see it as too casual and informal, and not up to the task of truly describing the work. "Oncology massage" is better because again, the work is done in the context of cancer care. But it falls short, as well: The massage techniques themselves should not be the only focus.

Oncology massage Therapy, or OMT

"Oncology massage therapy," (OMT for short), is the most descriptive term I've found. It describes a whole approach, not just the hands-on massage part. It captures the interview, the clinical thinking, the therapeutic relationship, the precautions, along with the specific hands-on modifications.

It also captures the therapeutic aims of the work. The inclusion of "therapy" makes it sound as serious as it is: Oncology massage therapy aims to reduce symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment. It is designed to help clients cope, supporting them through their experiences. In recent years, I've added "therapy" onto the end of each instance of "oncology massage." I've come to see its critical place in our work.

Having solved this, at least for my own practice, I can loop back to the question of how to refer to my clients when I'm discussing my work with other professionals. Here's one more possibility: "OMT clients." Short, descriptive, respectful. Done. At least for now.

Not the Language Police

Although language is important, I am not qualified to be the language police. I slip up sometimes in teaching and conversation. I don't get it right for every client, reader, or MT.

These days, there is plenty of language to think about. People hold strong views on how we should tell stories of cancer diagnosis, treatment, post-treatment, and beyond. There are cancer journeys and cancer battles, and survivors and thrivers. There is beating cancer, and surrendering to the experience.

If you Google "language of cancer," you'll find many opinions about the militarization and demilitarization of the language describing experiences of cancer. You'll see people weigh in about how these terms make them feel while they're in the middle of it. For some, "kicking cancer's butt" is violent imagery, and they feel weak, inadequate, and blamed for not being able to somehow kick butt. For others, the same images are inspiring and motivating. To each their own.

I try to take my cues from my clients in conversation, and balance that with what I'm comfortable hearing from my own mouth. For example, "cancer thrivers" feels forced, and a bit trendy. I counseled one OMT to choose something different for a website because it looked like she might be trying too hard to get it correct. I wanted her to speak to those, as well, who don't necessarily feel like they are thriving, but who need her care.

Unless or until "thriving" settles in to stay for a while, "survivorship" is more natural for me to say. My speaking and writing style is a little more neutral and old-fashioned. Because people sometimes feel strongly about one word over another, I try to land wherever we can all be the most comfortable. I'm curious about where other OMTs and OMT clients land, as well.

Listen for the Humanity

Language describes human experience, so it's important to choose our words wisely. However, in most cases, I don't have to get that language perfectly right to connect with my clients. My clients don't necessarily need me to be fully up-to-date and hip. They need my presence, and my listening ears. They need me to ask, "Is this the way you'd describe you/it/the experience?" They need me to ask what things are like for them, and to respond with care and skill. So I listen for the humanity in words.

For my clients, I look for words that describe as open and expansive an experience as possible. For my own work, I settle on language that is clinical and professional. In the end, I hope my speech is as thoughtful as my hands, and that both are in service of my clients.

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