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On Writing, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Beyond Stillness

I am currently re-reading The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is a fascinating, novelistic, nerdtastic telling of the history of cancer. There are so many facts and nuggets in it that are buried in the larger story, and are breathtaking in their own right. Today, I am thinking of one of those nuggets.

In my edition of the book, Mukherjee states (somewhat erroneously) that the root of the word “metastasis” means “beyond stillness.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the actual root of the word, and consider the breathtaking poetry that is “Beyond Stillness.”

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Metastasis, as we currently understand it, is the movement of a disease from one part of the body to another. In cancer land, this can exponentially increase the dangers of a particular disease process. Every cancer patient hopes to be free of metastasis, leaving the rest of their body intact and functional. (As much as it can be after systemic treatments like chemotherapy, anyway.)

We shorten metastasis to “mets” in talking about progression of cancer. Breast cancer with bone mets. Lung cancer with brain mets. This short, sharp, easier to say word that contains within it layers of fear, anxiety, and potential physical pain.

Which brings me back, to beyond stillness. With cancer metastasis, the disease has moved beyond the stillness of a body at rest in wellness. It has moved beyond the stillness of an in situ tumor which yields obediently to removal or treatment. The disease moves beyond stillness into a kind of strobe light-illuminated motion, where the confirmation of movement comes through the flashes of a PET/CT scan.

And what exists beyond stillness?

Is it the growth of the opposite, a kind of frantic and endless motion that never quite rests, never quite allows the body to rest?

Or can we find, beyond stillness, another level of stillness — something even more quiet? Is the movement beyond stillness like the movement from the parking lot at the top of a hiking trail to the spot a mile or so down the trail, where all the city noises are erased and the senses can expand into this new space?

The simple etymology of metastasis, mistaken though it may be, leads to a particular kind of poetry. This is the poetry of words that lead into a compassionate and loving meditation on life, disease, and death. This is the poetry of breathing and being in a vulnerable, human body.

Inner World, Massage Tales, On Writing, Thoughts on the profession

Until They Know

The other night, I sat with my partner, talking about life’s work, life’s purpose, and other meaningful things. We have that conversation a lot, both as a way to check in with each other for support and as a way to clarify for ourselves what is truly important. Sitting there, in our middle ages, we stretch forward and reach into what we both hope will be our renaissance.

I was telling my partner about the moment. The moment when I was sitting with a client, presumably massaging them but really being a loving, peaceful presence for them. In that moment, I felt all the struggles and blocks to my creative energy dissolve away. I felt open to receive and translate what ever might come forward. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the exact right place doing the exact right work.

My client that day was frail, small, elderly. My client was also an open fount of love and kindness who never let me leave without telling me how beautiful and sweet she thought me to be. She was exhausted from a restless night and bouts of nausea. She was in extremis. From the outside, it looked like all I did was sit next to her and gently hold her hands.

As I finished telling the story, I tried to find a way to explain the rightness of that moment, to translate it into words that could describe what I want my work to be. Finally, I said:

I’m just here to love on people until they realize how much they’re worth.

And that was it. The exact right phrase. I have found my mission statement for the remainder of my career, and, truly, of my life as a human being.

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In my past, I spent several years in corporate America, and in those years I learned to deeply mistrust the idea of a “mission statement.” To me, it had the association of wasted hours in meeting rooms and whiteboards full of meaningless phrases. It meant a lot of back-patting while everyone settled back into the exact same soul-numbing atmosphere as before. Mission statements, I thought, look nice on annual reports or company-branded merchandise, but in practice they meant nothing.

When I hit on that sentence, though, I also hit on a new understanding of mission statements in general. After the political and religious definitions of the word “mission” in the dictionary comes this definition:

a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling

dictionary.com

I am not a traditionally religious person, but the idea of a “calling” still resonates with me. The truth is, we humans really are intertwined and connected in ways we don’t quite understand. There is a need in the community that each of us is suited to fill. That need has a voice, which calls out and, I think, it is our job to listen, and, on hearing, respond.


A few weeks ago I started out trying to write a few different posts about relaxing massage, gentle massage, and the underappreciated benefits of both. As with much of my writing, I thought I was doing one thing, but the writing eventually led me to a new (better) place.

I thought I was providing some education about physiology and the mechanisms of massage therapy as I understand them. In fact, I was writing my way into my personal mission statement, the guiding force that all my endeavors must support.


I have a postcard on my refrigerator which I got form an artist at the St. James Court Art Show a couple of years ago. It says: “Don’t become famous for doing something you don’t love.” I get that now, in a way I didn’t get it before.

It’s the love. It has always been the love.

Inner World, Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Chicken Skin and Butterflies

“Rebecca, your touch is so gentle I bet you could pet butterflies.” She said this to me as she dropped into the table and let her arms fall away from her body. She breathed deeply and evenly and within a few minutes I could see that she was asleep, or nearly so. At the end of her session, she smiled at me warmly and said she appreciated being able to fall asleep comfortably.

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She reminded me of my time in Thailand a couple of years ago. I studied Thai massage for a couple of weeks — just enough time to confirm that I really know nothing about Thai massage. The teacher used to joke about “elephant skin people” and “chicken skin people.”

Elephant skin people, to him, were those who wanted more aggressive bodywork. They seemed to thrive on the deepest compressions, the most rigorous stretches, and the rough handling of their bodies. He gave a demonstration on one of these people while I was there. The client, a muscled American motorcycle rider complete with leather vest and chaps, groaned and whimpered his way through the session with my teacher. After the session, he got up from the mat, smiling and testing his newly mobile joints.

Chicken skin people, on the other hand, required gentler handling. Their bodies could not take deep work and they often could not move into some of the postures typical of Thai massage. My teacher teased me that I was a chicken skin person. In that, he was (is) completely correct. I do not respond well to aggressive bodywork.

And, as I am starting to fully embrace, I am a massage therapist for the chicken skinned. I feel most connected and at my best with those whose bodies, minds, and/or spirits require gentle handling and a careful, loving approach.

My client, who found such a vivid and lovely metaphor for the way I work, also gave me the perfect ending to this three week exploration of “just a relaxing massage.” I am here to whisper, gently, to your nervous system and let your body sink into its own healing capability.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just a Relaxing Massage, Part 2

Let’s talk about your nervous system. How about a quick check in? How’s it doing? If you are alive and reading this, it’s pretty safe to say that your nervous system is functioning.

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Your nervous system, the control system of the body, the keeper of the keys to so many other functions, is, for me, the primary target of massage. If I can facilitate a switch in your nervous system from sympathetic (“fight or flight”) mode to parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode, then a whole cascade of benefits happen in your body and mind. These include:

  • drop in heart rate and blood pressure
  • decrease in muscle tension
  • increase in energy required to focus
  • warmer body temperature overall

And these powerful effects come from that thing that is undervalued so much — “just” relaxation. Those effects seem pretty powerful to me, and definitely worth an hour of time.

Today I saw a new client. She chatted during part of the massage, talking about how she was always busy, always running, found it hard to stop and sit for a minute. She booked the massage as part of an ongoing plan to take care of herself. She talked about how it was necessary to take care of herself, but she said it in a way that seemed like she was trying to convince herself. For the last ten minutes of the massage, she grew quiet and her breathing deepened and slowed. Her arms, previously held close and tight by her sides, fell gently out to the sides. Her face softened. At the end of the massage, I said “Thank you,” and she said, “That felt good.”

That felt good.

It is enough, more than enough, to facilitate a space where someone can step out of their busy life and feel good in their own body, their original home.

Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Just A Relaxing Massage, Part 1

We make a lot of claims in massage therapy. Some of them are proven. Most of them are not. I was thinking about this today as I went to talk to a local clinic about their massage offerings. Their website included the “improves circulation” and “removes toxins” claims that we hear so much, and that have no evidence to back them up.

Much smarter people than me have written about this, at length and with remarkable clarity. I suggest you check out Tracy Walton’s take here for more detail.

I want to talk about why we make all these claims in the first place. There are days when the entire profession feels like a collection of people tied up in some kind of inferiority complex. And, yes, I am including myself in this whole mix. We make all kinds of claims about what massage can do based on anecdotes, or long-standing oral tradition, or sometimes wishful thinking.

It goes, so often, like this: “Massage is relaxing. . . AND it can increase circulation and boost immunity and it might even make you able to fly.*”

(* — massage will not make you able to fly. Unless your therapist hands you a plane ticket at the end of the session.)

What’s wrong with stopping at “Massage is relaxing?” When did it become not enough to facilitate deep, uninterrupted relaxation? I have the good fortune to live a slow life most days, with time for exercise and reading and general contemplation. Most of the people I know are not so lucky. One slow hour with nothing to do but receive skilled bodywork seems like more than enough.

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This week, I am working on removing the word “just” from my vocabulary when talking about massage — as in “just relaxation.” As I know from my understanding of the nervous system, the effects of relaxation are profound and wide-ranging in the human body. I’m going to stop diminishing that.

Next week, I will explore some of these effects and the profound meaning of calming the human nervous system.

Inner World, Thoughts on the profession

Be the Weirdo

There are so many conversations I would like to have about massage therapy, and about health care in general. The one about equity and accessibility of care. The one about basic massage education and its preparation (or lack thereof) for a career. The one about how much to charge and when/if to raise your rates. The one about complementary and alternative and where does massage live.

That last one — the complementary/alternative one — has been on my mind lately. For myself, I’m pretty firmly decided that massage therapy is complementary in nature, and is most effective when used in concert and communication with other forms of care. What’s on my mind is how we think and talk about those other forms of care.

I am struck by how many people come through my office and will tell me about their doctors with an eye-roll or knowing wink. Some will straight out tell me that their doctors are scam artists who are just in it for the money. I am working on changing this kind of talk.

There are better and more productive conversations we can be having about healthcare right now. I’m working with some super-smart nerds at Healwell trying to have those conversations in public.  In my daily private work, it’s a little more challenging.

It all comes down to acknowledging the feeling behind the words, the hidden voice that speaks through the filter of disdain for traditional medical care. And to honor that, to hear it, I need to ask better questions. Questions like: where did you feel unheard? What calms your mind? What wakes you up at night? And, when I’m feeling a little combative, questions like: do you think doctors go to medical school because they want to hurt people? How would you handle a day scheduled around too little time with every one of your patients?

Questions that want to look directly into the heart of the heart, the deep and vulnerable truth that always comes out somehow. This is terrifying, for both me and my clients. I am not sure how to do it.

I am bolstered by a conversation I’ve been having with some of the people I traveled with last month. In the country we visited, the standard greeting was a warm, heart-to-heart hug, sometimes with a kiss on the cheek. People we met thought it was strange that we would wave and say “Hello” without reaching out to touch them. We got used to the hugs and the human connection.

As we got home, some of us joked about becoming the “weirdo hugger” in our workplaces. But at the same time, many of us noticed that the same people who thought it was weird when we hugged them, would linger a bit until they got their hug. Every day.

This makes me think that we really do want to connect with each other in some real way. We have just built some of the most elaborate defensive systems on the planet to protect ourselves. And sometimes all it takes to get through those defense systems is to become the weirdo. Hug the people. Ask the questions. Start the conversation.

It’s not always going to end well. I have had experience with that this week. I had a couple of honest conversations. The outcome was not ideal, but my comfort and peace in my own soul was off the charts.

Weirdo power.

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Jet Lag

I’ve been home for about a week now. It has officially been long enough that I can no longer use “jet lag” as an excuse for not responding to messages or generally not being productive. Time to be honest.

I’m not responding (to some messages) because I don’t want to. Some things that were so important before I left are really not so important any more. My priorities have shifted. My mind has changed. This doesn’t work for me anymore.

But we can’t actually say any of those things out loud, can we? Can we?

The people I travelled with are keeping in touch on a WhatsApp group. Underneath all the funny “Here’s me after my long flight” pictures, there is a longing that we all share. It is the longing to keep something alive.

We all exited our daily lives for a while and challenged ourselves with a foreign place and the opportunity to look ridiculous while learning something new. For each one of us, it opened up something. We are trying to find a way to keep that something open. It is a question of shifting around our daily lives to accommodate, rather than shifting back into our old selves.

The thing is, most of our lives are pretty crowded, like the market stalls in the town where we stayed. Something has to shift. Something has to give. This doesn’t work for me anymore.

We started a sub-group, dedicated just to holding each other accountable for the things we want to change. Our goals range from finding space for daily creativity to cutting out narcissistic people for good and all.

It’s only been a week, but just knowing that group exists, and that I’ve written down things I mean to do, has changed the way I fit back into my home life. Some things really are not so important anymore.

Now what happens is I have to live out these changes. As soon as I get over this jet lag . . . .