massage education, Modalities, Oncology Massage

The Impossible Task

board game business challenge chess
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I have two hours this coming Thursday to teach a roomful of massage students about Oncology Massage.  I will fail at this task.  I know I will fail because I have deliberately, and with careful attention, set myself up to fail.  I look forward to it.

If you’ve been around me for anything more than an hour or so, you know that I practice oncology massage, and I teach oncology massage basics whenever I can.  This is a three day, 24-hour, continuing education workshop where we routinely end the class by telling people how much more they have to learn.

About 8 weeks ago, when I took a good long look at the syllabus for the Pathology class I’m teaching, I saw that I had one class period to cover oncology massage.  Just one class.  Two hours.  To me, this is barely enough time to really make sure the class understands what cancer actually is, other than something you wear pink or run 5Ks to “cure.”  I decided that I needed to get in front of this topic right away.

The information I can cover in two hours is maybe just bordering on enough to give students the right intake questions to ask — the questions that will help them know when they need to refer someone to someone who is trained in oncology massage.

Fortunately for me, every class mentions a cancer of whatever system we happen to be studying, so I have frequent, relevant times to set expectations.  I have repeated variations on the phrase “more training is needed” since the first week of class.  I have tried to repeat often that the best therapists are those who work within their knowledge and skill set — those who are generous with admitting they don’t know something.  I am trying to set them up to know what they don’t know.

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This Thursday, armed with our textbooks and the 70-or-so slides that go with it, we will attempt to talk through oncology massage.  We will fall short.  We will, in other words, fail.  And in doing so, we will gain the much more valuable knowledge of our own limits.  I will be happy with that.  If I can release these students from this class with more questions and curiosity than answers and certainty, I will have done my job well.

Let’s get to falling short.

massage education, Thoughts on the profession

There’s a Week for That

Did you know there’s a thing called Teacher Appreciation Week?  I had no idea until a little into my second year of teaching at a massage school in Chicago.  When I discovered it, I also discovered what my students really thought about me.  It was surprising, eye-opening, unforgettable.

When I arrived for my evening classes, many students stood clustered around a long table in the hallway of the school.  Some bent over, awkwardly cradling books, bags and papers in one arm while they wrote on something with the other arm.  I made a minimal-detour beeline for my classroom, as I typically did, and figured there was some kind of group interview or job fair coming up.  And here is where I admit that I am that guy — I check email selectively, particularly email that is very specific to one of my jobs.  If the subject line or the preview does not seem to be directly related to my job (in this case, to my students or the classes I was teaching), then I delete it right away.  I am that guy who asks stupid questions, like, “What’s with all the birthday cakes in the lounge?” or, “Why are there a bunch of students clustered around a long table in the hallway?”

It was, as a colleague told me, Teacher Appreciation Week.  On top of that table were cards, one for each instructor.  Students got to write whatever they wished to whomever they wished, and at the end of the week, the cards appeared in our mailboxes, complete with messages.  I picked mine up at the end of a day and read it on the train home. I was shocked.

I teach because I love it, and because, some days, I’m pretty good at it.  I’ve written about it here, and I hope it comes through that I feel a pretty strong responsibility to the students who end up in my class.  I try to start each new class with two assumptions:  we are adults, and we are able to learn.  My job is to create the right circumstances for learning and discovery to happen.  Some days are better then others.  Some groups are easier than others.

pexels-photo-887353.jpegRight there, though, on the card in front of me, was the written proof that somehow these students learned lasting and special lessons that maybe had nothing to do with myelin or the pathologies of the cardiovascular system.  Their messages ranged from the simple “Thank you,” to heartfelt words about some specific thing I had forgotten that I did or said to them.  One class, small in number but strong in personality, took a whole extra sheet of paper to illustrate and label one of their favorite (?) in-class activities.  (I laugh-snorted at that one, and other people on the train gave me lots of room.)  I had no idea that so many things were sinking in, coming through, and being remembered.  Of course it touched and moved me just as any true sign of appreciation and gratitude touches and moves any human.

I still have that card.  I pull it out on days when I am not sure if I have this whole life thing down yet.  And that is my enduring gratitude back to everyone who wrote on that card, even if it was a quick, perfunctory “Thank you.”  To all of those former students — I thank you.  You held me up in ways that you don’t even know.

And if you are thinking of someone, feeling grateful for any little thing, wondering if it would be weird to send a quick message of thanks, let me know:  it’s not weird.  It’s beautiful.  Do it.



Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Presence over Pressing

Yesterday I had one of the best days in my massage career in Louisville.

The day started with a visit to a hospice client*.  I spent a half hour moving slowly around her as she rested in bed, breathing deeply and slowly falling asleep.  Her skin was pale and papery thin.  I could see the round outline of her knee through her sheets.  This person, this frail body, needed nothing so much as my focused attention.  I softened my hands and laid them gently on her arms, shoulders, knees.  I held her hands in mine and gently moved her fingers.  I held her head while she breathed and relaxed her arms.  the thought came to me slowly, in the way that you might realize light has come into your bedroom in the morning.  The thought was:  how wonderful it feels to be exactly where I ought to be.

Later in the day, I worked with a few clients at my office, “healthy” clients who did not require the same kinds of adaptations as the morning client.  Even so, some part of the stillness from the morning stayed with me, as did the sense of peaceful presence.  With the people I had worked with before, I noticed a new layer of quiet reverence.  The stillness in me brings forth and honors the stillness in you.

As I am reflecting on this good day, I am remembering something a friend told me.  She came to visit for a weekend, and scheduled a massage with me during her visit.  We used to trade on a regular basis when I lived in Chicago, so she has received numerous massages from me.  After her massage, she hugged me and she said,”Your hands feel different.  It feels like your touch has come into its own here.  This place suits you.”

And she is right.  This place suits me.  Not just this physical place, but the place that holds the kind of work I did yesterday.  The place of calm ease and stillness.  The place where presence is so much more important than pressing.

*–any names and identifying details have been changed

Oncology Massage, S4OM

Report from S4OM

This past weekend was the Society for Oncology Massage’s Healing Summit.  It was a gathering of oncology massage therapists from around the world and a chance to learn from each other and geek out about science, research, and other things that make our practice deeper.

As I did for the last Summit, I arrived a day early so I could take part in the Educators’ Forum.  This is a day-long meeting of people who teach oncology massage, or who are interested in teaching oncology massage.  As I suspected, the day was both inspiring and frustrating.  In the morning, we sat in small groups and I gathered a lot of business inspiration from my colleagues.  They reminded me that creativity is not just the realm of the fine artist, but of every human endeavor.  And collaborative creativity is the finest idea generator of them all.

In the afternoon, we gathered as a larger group and tried to talk through some challenges facing us as educators.  Although nothing was decided, and I am not sure anything will actually get done as a result of those discussions, It was good to see again how much we all share the conviction that what we do is needed, important, and should be held to high standards.  Even if we do often disagree on our definition of “high standards.”

The rest of the weekend I got to be a student again, and learn about radiation therapy, research into massage on cancer pain, and music therapy.  It was wonderful, and I am still buzzing with the information.

Now that I am back at home, going into my office again, my challenge is to translate all of this material into something that will actually benefit clients.  Something beyond the benefit of a knowledgeable and curious therapist.  (Although I still strongly believe a curious therapist does better, more effective work.)

What keeps resonating for me right now is not specific information, but rather more of the feeling.  That unique and energizing feeling of being completely “all in” with what you are doing.  That delight in moving towards the obligations of the day.  It helps that it is Spring in my part of the world, and the colors of the flowering trees are brilliant in the radiant days we are having this week.  My task, my goal, my object now is to carry the dedication and energy all the way through to the next Summit, or the next gathering of like-minded souls.


Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Tired Hands

I arrived at my friend’s house after a full day of clients.  As I made the short drive from my office, I felt my hands grow more and more heavy on the steering wheel.  I felt the muscles in my forearms tingle with weakness and the tips of my fingers throbbed as if they were bruised.

  “Please,” I said, when I walked in the door, “could you just massage my hands for a minute?”

The day that led to that state of manual exhaustion (pun intended) was the kind of day I consciously tried to build my career to avoid.  A one-after-the-other stack of new clients unlikely to schedule repeat visits.  Lovely human beings who were perfectly healthy and who only got massages when someone else bought them a gift certificate, or when they were on vacation at a warm, tropical resort.  Deep in the muscles of my hands and arms, I felt the weariness of spending hours doing the kind of work I did not want.  My hands were tired, and I could not imagine massaging another human that day.

I suppose if I were a better businesslady, I could have found and mustered a way to talk to each of these people about the way I work (not aggressively), about the value of regular massage for all people, and about building a relationship with one massage therapist over time.  I suppose if I were more focused on filling my practice, I could have done all those things the brilliant people at Massage Business Blueprint suggest you do to retain clients.

Maybe I am fundamentally, constitutionally, and semi-aggressively a slacker when it comes to standard business building.  I would rather live simpler and with fewer new things so that I can have time and leisure to walk in the woods, or sit and write, or sit and think about writing.  I would rather end the day with calm, relaxed hands.  The better to capture ideas with, my dear.

As my friend massaged my hands, I felt the weariness drain out like water.  In its place, surrounding every filament, fiber and fascicle, I felt a sparkling readiness.  Rest would come soon, and when it did come, it would be deep and restorative.  It wasn’t the work that made me weary, it was the chaos.  I have dropped my marketing efforts and forgotten the niche I identified for myself.  Time to sit quietly again, and  put the business where my heart is.

heart-mussels-harmony-love-161002.jpegDear Ones, I am your resource in Louisville for manual lymphatic drainage.  This is a gentle, profoundly relaxing, medical massage technique that is used as part of the treatment for lymphedema, but also has many beneficial applications.  My clients have found relief from allergy-related sinus headaches, post-workout swelling and soreness, post-surgical swelling and general tension headaches.  Come in and talk to me about it, and experience it for yourself.


Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

When I’m Not Your Therapist

It happened again.  That moment with a new client where I realized with utter clarity that I am not the right massage therapist for this human.  The moment I knew:  about ten minutes into the massage, when the client said, “You can press harder.  I’m used to lots of pressure.”

I said, “Okay,” and thought, “I am not your therapist.”  Because this client wanted deep tissue, or this thing we often mistakenly call deep tissue.  And I am not a deep tissue therapist.

Don’t misunderstand me — I can (and do) work specifically, effectively, and therapeutically.  What I don’t do particularly well (and don’t care to) is to press REALLY HARD into someone’s tissues.  If that is the kind of bodywork your body wants, then I am definitely not your therapist.

I have a number of theories and twice as many opinions about deep tissue massage and when or whether it is actually necessary or effective.  I am pretty well convinced that the most profound effects come from work that is more gentle, based in finesse and knowledge and listening to the body of the person on the table.  I am also convinced that when a client is able to really be present, to drop fully and completely into their body, it is not necessary to be super aggressive.

There is an excellent (and I hope not cancelled) podcast called Change Agent.  On one of the episodes, the hosts explored the steps necessary to persuade someone to change their mind about something.  It came as no surprise to me that none of those steps involved shouting or force of any kind.  They talked about listening, seeking to understand.  About becoming vulnerable and sharing your own true and relevant experience.

This strikes me to be true for massage as well.  Massage is a conversation.  It is my nervous system (and knowledge and training), speaking to your nervous system (and wisdom and lived experience.)  It is the same with hands as it is with words — shouting is not conversation, it is argument.  Shouting is imposing my (or your) will, and that is just about the last thing I want to do as your massage therapist.

That being said, I am also aware that my particular touch may not feel right for everyone.  Our nervous systems speak different languages, and that’s okay.  I am happy to refer you (or anyone) to a therapist who is fluent in the language of you.

Because the other thing I a fully convinced of (and will write about later): scarcity is a dangerous myth.  Keeping a tight and jealous hold on my domain does not increase my prosperity, it does the opposite.  I am not in business to keep anyone from getting the best massage for their body.  Sometimes, that massage comes from me, and when it doesn’t, I will do what I can to help you find the person you need.





Thoughts on the profession

Play Date

I was sitting in the park yesterday and I saw the cutest thing.  Two little girls, about 6 or 7 years old, were running around playing, all hopped up on the sunshine and the warmth of the day.  The mother of one girl called her because it was time to leave.  They both ran over, got a pen and a piece of paper, and traded phone numbers.  They hugged each other close with big smiles, and ran off to their respective mothers, calling to each other, “We’ll have a play date soon!”  Such effortless, artless happiness.  Such open and free affection.  It was adorable.

This week marks my first anniversary back in my home state of Kentucky.  It has been a beautiful, challenging year.  Every day something happens that reassures me I made the right decision to move here.  And every day I reflect on some ongoing challenge of being here.

I think my number one ongoing challenge may be shared by many adults in the United States: connection.  I am far from isolated, and I would welcome more ways to be connected to people and community.  This is why I prefer walking to work over driving, and working at coffee shops instead of at home.  To move at the pace of people, and among people, and to know I belong to them and they belong to me.

Somewhere between the age of 6 and late teens, many of us lost that ease of affection that I saw in those two little girls.  At some point, it becomes “weird” to say, “Hey.  I like you.  You’re neat.  Let’s be friends.”  Or even to say, “My neighbor, I care about you.”

It may not seem like lack of connection is something a massage therapist would notice in their office, but I see it often in my clients.  It shows up sideways in the way someone talks about the stress in their life.  It sneaks through in folded-up, protective postures that leave necks sore and backs aching.  It leaks out in the facial expressions that ask me to please listen, hear and acknowledge.

So, my clients, my neighbors, I care about you.  I see you, and I want to hear what you have to say.  I hope for you that someone offers you free and open affection, and brings you artless, effortless happiness.

pexels-photo-225017.jpeg  (not the girls from the park, but still adorable.  Thanks, free image library!)