Might of hand
Oncology massage helps bring relief for cancer patients and survivors
Seventeen years after battling an aggressive form of breast cancer, Laura Long has learned to heal. Her body underwent three surgeries and a bone marrow transplant, procedures that are at the root of her ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder. Whenever people try to touch the left side of her body, where the cancer was, her instinct is to slug them in the face.
After treatment, there’s a harsh transition back to “the so-called normal life,” Long said.
She still flinches at the thought of the invasive procedures and needles, but she’s slowly relearning to trust physical contact with the help of oncology massage therapy. For the last couple years, she’s been regularly visiting Miles Berdache, owner of Miles Berdache Skin & Body Studio. Long wishes she’d known about oncology massage sooner. Treatment wouldn’t have been such a horrific experience, she said, and the healing process would have been easier.
“I was in the fight of my life and I was very, very sick,” she said. “I wish I would have had that—something to counterbalance the violent treatment.”
Berdache does so with a soft touch. By applying pressure to specific points in the body, he can stir up lost appetites in patients, or help re-energize bodies long fatigued, he said.
“There’s a big responsibility being a massage therapist,” he said. “There’s a big responsibility to be able to work on people safely and feel confident in what you’re doing.”
Since earning his oncology massage certification, Berdache has treated about 35 clients with cancer-related issues. His services include a variety of body treatments, hand and foot therapy, as well as makeup and waxing services.
But when it comes to actually delivering such services, there’s a catch—despite the benefits, oncology massage generally isn’t covered by health insurance because companies don’t consider it a type of cancer treatment. Clients must pay out-of-pocket for the service, so Berdache started a GoFundMe account that lets him charge patients on a sliding scale—from zero dollars up to $65 for a 90-minute massage, depending on what a client can afford. The fund picks up the remaining balance.
And local pool-sharks are chipping in. The Angels of Billiards, made up of three women who put together charity matches for various organizations, are hosting a fundrasier for the oncology massage fund on Saturday, Oct. 24, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Oasis Bar & Grill.
Since this is the first year of the fundraiser, Jackie Karol, Angels founder, has modest expectations. She hopes to raise at least $1,000, she said. Tickets for the open pool tournament are $10 per person and the tournament consists of Scotch doubles, or teams of two. If you don’t play pool but still want to participate, the Oasis is donating 20 percent of food and drink sales during the event to the fund.
Berdache worked as a licensed esthetician, cosmetologist and nail technician before pursuing massage therapy in 2010, after working with a couple of clients going through various stages of cancer.
He trained with Isabel Adkins, an oncology massage expert who developed an oncology massage program at the Massage Therapy Institute in Davis. It involves a rigorous 300-hour class on how to safely massage people affected by cancer, such as working around sensitive areas of the body during lymphatic drainage massages—redirecting fluids to an area more capable of handling them, he said.
Berdache is also certified in scar tissue mobilization, which helps with discomfort and tightness from mastectomies or other surgeries that leave scar tissue.
“It’s all really opened my eyes to how much we can truly help patients during their cancer journey, but also how much, if we’re not careful, we can really harm their journey,” he said of his training.
One of the requirements for certification is putting together a community project, Berdache said. So he helped start a massage program at the Enloe Cancer Center infusion therapy clinic, where he and Rebecca Senoglu, Enloe’s cancer-support program coordinator, developed reflexology guidelines for what’s required of new massage therapists. Currently there are two volunteers—one is Berdache—but the program needs more, he said. (Adkins will teach a cancer-oriented massage therapy in Chico on Oct. 24-26.)
When meeting a new client, Berdache goes through a 15-minute intake process, he said. He tries to understand a person’s emotional and physical state, and adapts his massage techniques to particular forms of cancer. He’ll also adjust a patient’s position to avoid parts of the body affected by disease.
For Berdache, helping someone in pain is extremely gratifying, he said. When clients comes in because they’re too tired to walk from their bed to the kitchen—and he helps them regain energy through massage—it moves him deeply.
“When you’re helping somebody with their everyday struggles and helping them to alleviate a lot of those symptoms, and helping their day-to-day journey be just a little bit more comfortable, it’s just on a much different level,” he said.
He recalls meeting a woman during an open clinic with Adkins. She was hesitant to try a massage and didn’t think she could lie down for an entire hour, but after some encouragement, she agreed to try. After about 10 minutes, she was sound asleep, Berdache said. The woman’s daughter walked in and started weeping because it had been months since she last saw her mother so peaceful.
“It’s a life-changing therapy that we can offer people who are going through a really bad time,” he said.