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Touch as a Therapeutic Tool

by Mary Martin(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 100 - June 2004

For centuries, the use of touch as a therapeutic tool has played a significant role in healing and facilitating care and compassion.

Because of its increasing dependence on technology, Western medicine is much less of a touching profession. Overworked nurses have less time for affective touch.

Cancer Units And Hospices

Entering hospital with a diagnosis of cancer is a traumatic experience, with scans, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery and medical terminology to cope with. It can cause tremendous stress and anxiety, which are further threats to patients' psychological and physical health. The powerful influence of touch, as a means of therapeutic communication, is so meaningful to patients at this time. Touch is vital for human function and emotion – yet its importance is largely overlooked. An exception to this is the introduction of 'touch therapies' in several cancer departments and hospices where complementary practitioners, such as reflexologists, provide support for patients. They need additional training to cover such issues as:

• An understanding of cancer treatments and their side effects;
• The psychosocial impact of cancer and its treatment;
• Identifying particular needs of patients;
• Addressing the needs of complementary practitioners – this work can be emotionally demanding.

A Cancer Diagnosis

This diagnosis evokes wide-ranging emotions – shock, fear, disbelief, anger, denial or a loss of control. Patients may also seek to protect their family and friends from distress by suppressing their own fears. They can receive counselling, and working from a holistic perspective; reflexology also offers psychological support.

Psychological Support

Reflexology works with the movement of subtle energy (the vital force) of the body that affects all levels of being. It is non-invasive and induces deep relaxation. Patients are more likely to express their anxieties when deeply relaxed and afforded time and attention. It can aid sleep and boost energy levels. It helps patients cope better with their illness and its treatment. Reflexology facilitates care, compassion and healing in its broadest sense.

The use of touch with reflexology breaks down barriers and establishes empathy. Should patients have difficulty in coming to terms with an altered body image – facial disfigurement, loss of hair or mastectomy – touch conveys unquestioning acceptance.

With terminally ill patients, it may be preferable to work the reflex points on the hands. This can convey warmth and security at a time when they feel frightened and alone. They may well be alone as far as close relatives are concerned. Touch brings peace and tranquillity that is more meaningful than words to some people. Others may wish to talk over their fears and feelings. It is a way of identifying with patients in a shared humanity – conveying compassion and support.

Physical Support

Cancer treatments may cause unpleasant side effects – nausea, constipation, irritable bladder, oedema, pins and needles or numbness, lethargy or pain. Reflexology has the potential to relieve such symptoms – digestive problems in particular. It aids the healing of scar tissue resulting from surgery. Depending on the individual's recuperative powers, reflexology can remove toxins, boost immunity and raise the level of general health and well being. Invariably there is a connection between anxiety and pain. Deep mental and physical relaxation can break this cycle. It is also suggested that reflexology stimulates the release of endorphins – the body's painkilling chemicals.

George's Case

George, aged 66, was critically ill with lymphoma for 3 years prior to my treating him. Orthodox treatment involved surgery and lots of chemotherapy. At one stage he had blood poisoning and was in intensive care on three occasions – not expected to live. When I saw him his immunity was severely depleted. He had frequent chest infections – his head and chest were always congested. George had a perpetual cough that kept him awake at night. He suffered from breathlessness and was lethargic. His hearing was impaired and he had lost his sense of smell. His diet was healthy and he drank plenty of spring water. George also drew great strength from his religious faith. His positive outlook and fighting spirit impressed me greatly.

I trusted that reflexology would trigger a boost to his immune system and clear the congestion in his head and chest. This occurred somewhat – sufficient to normalize his hearing. His sense of smell did not return. The incidence of chest infections was much less frequent and his cough virtually disappeared. George's breathlessness was hardly noticeable. His sleep pattern improved and he had more vitality – sufficient to enjoy a weekly game of golf without getting breathless. He was fit enough to travel to the USA on holiday. George said that he could not have progressed so far without reflexology.

Barbara's Case

This case shows how reflexology can aid restoration of normal function several years after surgery. Barbara, a nurse, was sceptical about reflexology. She told me that she had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer 9 years previously when lymph glands were removed from her left axilla. This resulted in very restricted movement of her arm and shoulder.

Six weeks previously she had had flu and expressed surprise when her sinuses began to clear during her initial treatment. Excess mucus had resulted from flu. I explained that reflexology encourages the body to release waste matter and promote self-healing. Reflexology is also a useful diagnostic tool. The reflex point corresponding to her left axilla was very sensitive. Within 5 treatments Barbara had unrestricted movement of her left arm and shoulder.

In conclusion, being less blinded by science makes it easier to see human needs – physical, psychological, spiritual and social – relative to health and well being.


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About Mary Martin

A qualified teacher, Mary Martin established her School of Reflexology in 1987. She founded the Association of Reflexologists in 1984 and is an Honorary Life Member. Previously she practised as a Gerson therapist. Mary belongs to a network of therapists attached to the cancer centre at Mount Vernon Hospital. She has had a busy practice in Ruislip since 1983. She may be contacted on Tel: 01895 635621;

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