Good question. We get this question a lot.
It comes to us from massage therapists who are curious about oncology massage therapy (OMT). It comes from established MTs considering a new direction, and from new MTs who might want to specialize.
Some MTs ask us this because they are deciding whether to invest in an oncology massage therapy course. They wonder whether training is a worthwhile investment, and whether there are opportunities to earn good income. They want to know who is hiring.
Their question, “Are there jobs in oncology massage therapy?” is an honest question.
Actually, there are two honest questions.
1. Are there jobs in oncology massage therapy?
2. Is there work in oncology massage therapy?
Two questions, with two landscapes to consider. Let’s look at each one.
1. Jobs in Oncology Massage Therapy
Yes, there are jobs in oncology massage therapy.
How do I know this?
Not because we have a central source of data about jobs in this specialty. I know of no specific job board. OMT stats are not tracked by professional massage therapy associations.
However, a quick look at job sites (Hello, Indeed.com!) answers this question. The jobs listed there reflect the growing popularity of oncology massage therapy.
Every month I hear from oncology massage therapists about their involvement in exciting jobs and programs. From what I hear in this office alone, demand for this specialty is increasing.
With a job in oncology massage therapy, you might work in a cancer institute or hospital. Cancer care might be the sole or primary focus of the job.
Employers typically require continuing education in OMT, extensive hands-on experience with this population, or both. In addition to coursework, there are hoops, hurdles, and credentials involved in these positions.
2. Work in Oncology Massage Therapy
The future of OMT jobs is promising, but I want to focus on a different question:
“Is there work in oncology massage therapy?”
This question is even more significant for the profession. It affects all of us, not just MTs looking for certain jobs.
Work in oncology massage therapy is plentiful, even if you’re not seeking specialization or employment in cancer care.
It’s easier to find work than to find a job.
The work of oncology massage therapy in front of us, and all around us. The work is finding its way to our tables.
Here is how I know:
For the year 2020, the National Center for Health Statistics projects more than 1.9 million cancer cases in the US. That’s up from 1.5 million a few years ago. Right now in the US alone, there are over 15 million people living with cancer histories. That number is expected to increase to over 20 million by 2026.
Oncology massage therapy isn’t just for people in cancer treatment; it is for people with cancer histories, as well. Some of our practices are in force long after treatment is complete–months, years, or even decades. This means we serve a significant population.
Put together the increasing numbers of people with the increasing popularity of massage therapy, and demand for OMT should increase.
Where do people look for OMT?
During cancer treatment and post-treatment, people seek massage therapy in all of these settings:
- Spas and franchises
- Private practice
- Their own homes
- Massage schools
- Clinics, hospitals, and hospices
- Community organizations
- Corporate settings, “pop-up” events, athletic fundraisers
If you work in any of these settings, you encounter clients with cancer and cancer histories. If you haven’t yet, you will. In passing, even some franchises and spas mention that oncology training is a plus in their hiring.
The public is asking for oncology massage therapy.
Non-drug approaches to pain and other symptoms have grown in acceptance. In particular, the Joint Commission recently added a standard in non-pharmacologic approaches to pain relief, and specifically mentioned massage therapy. As the certifying and accrediting body for hospitals, clinics, and programs in the US, the Joint Commission has wide reach and influence.
More and, patients seek non-pharmacologic relief in cancer care.
Here are some of the reasons they seek OMT:
- Clients with cancer seek relief from pain, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, and even depression. They ask for massage therapy to help them cope.
- They need stress relief post-treatment, when they are expected to resume normal life, but they encounter a “new normal” with persistent stress.
- People need massage therapy during the process of diagnosis, or re-diagnosis.
- Massage therapy support can ease people’s experiences at end of life.
- At the very least, clients tell us that massage helps them sleep. During treatment, they need to sleep better.
As massage therapists, we are motivated by the rewards of helping people. The need is great in cancer care, and the rewards are heightened.
Yet some people are sent home.
Despite this documented need, some people with cancer are still being sent home without massage. Massage therapists do not always feel comfortable or prepared to see them. A failed encounter like that can leave both client and massage therapist demoralized. Proof: I receive distressed phone calls and emails. Regularly.
What do clients need from us instead?
They need therapists to understand their needs. Instead of being sent home, clients need to be welcomed by skilled therapists who are ready to provide support and symptom relief.
They need to be asked thoughtful questions, and they need their own questions answered. Clients need a sensitive intake experience–beyond the rote questions off of a stock client health form. They need massage therapists to ask them the correct questions about their health and treatment–not too many stray questions, and not too few.
Clients need a conversation about their condition and their treatment. They need clear communication about how massage therapy will be customized for them.
They need lifelong modifications in the years ahead. Post-cancer-treatment, clients need practitioners who know that some massage precautions are lifelong, in force for decades after cancer treatment ends, and that others become less relevant, the further away someone gets from their treatment. They need this explained to them, competently and compassionately.
These needs can be overwhelming to massage therapists who haven’t been taught how to provide for them. But with preparation, meeting these needs is pretty straightforward. The best form of preparation is foundational training.
Who attends a foundational oncology massage therapy course, and why?
Some MTs want to specialize.
For some, oncology massage therapy is a career-defining choice. It is a specialty, a focus on a certain client population. For some, it’s why they went into massage therapy in the first place. Perhaps they have experienced cancer themselves, and massage made a difference. Perhaps they enrolled in massage school after wanting to bring relief to someone dear to them, but they did not know how to do it safely.
Now, they want to help others. For them, OMT training helps them grow a specialized practice on their own, or position themselves for certain jobs or programs. Or, there’s no such job or program in the moment, but they want to be ready when opportunity appears.
If you decide to specialize, oncology massage therapy is a good niche. It can be a powerful way to distinguish yourself in the massage therapy market. It commands attention and respect.
But not everyone specializes.
Some MTs see a mix of clients.
Other therapists say that OMT chose them, rather than the other way around. They were puttering along in employment or private practice, seeing a mix of clients. Eventually more and more people appeared, wanting massage during cancer treatment, or beyond.
Way back when, 25+ years ago, this is how I came to the work. It came to me.
Faced with clients wanting this kind of care, these massage therapists realize they need help. Most entry-level massage training doesn’t prepare them for the work. Therapists know that real help is more than a list of tips, more than a chatter of conflicting advice from a Facebook group.
So they seek out a CE course to strengthen their skills and work with confidence. Ultimately they might shift their practice to cancer care. Or they continue in general practice, but with a steady stream of oncology clients. They become known in their communities as practitioners who welcome people with cancer and cancer histories.
Others see only an occasional client with cancer.
Perhaps a friend of a friend wants a massage while on a short break between cancer treatments.
Or a new client comes in, and you learn that she had breast cancer treatment 15 years ago. She doesn’t know the massage precautions needed for her situation.
Another client schedules a session for a parent, who has advanced pancreatic cancer with multiple organ and bone involvement.
Massage therapists tell me that without training, they muddle through these occasional situations. Some just work the way they always do, closing their eyes and hoping their intuition gets them through the session. Some try to play it safe by working lightly the whole time.
They struggle with the before-and-after conversations, too. They aren’t sure what to ask the client about their condition, and how to tell them what might need to be modified in the session. They have a hard time encouraging a client to re-book, when it was a stretch see them in the first place.
Even if these struggles are occasional, they are painful.
So some massage therapists attend a CE course in oncology massage therapy so that they can better serve occasional clients.
And other therapists wonder, “How do I justify a whole CE course for just an occasional client?”
Occasional clients need care, too.
For clients in treatment or post-treatment, good massage care requires more than a sound bite. “Follow your intuition!” doesn’t help a therapist fumbling with interview questions before the session. “Just work lightly!” doesn’t fly with a client who might indeed be able to benefit from firmer work. “Give them whatever they want!” is poor and often dangerous advice in some cases.
Using firm pressure without thinking about it can do real and lasting injury, as in cases of bone involvement or past lymph node removal.
How do you explain–to a client post-treatment–why massage should be gentle here, but could be firmer there? Without practicing that conversation, it can be hard to face down a client who challenges you on it.
These exchanges can be awkward. It serves no one, to push through when we don’t feel confident or professional.
The alternative is no better: It is embarrassing to turn someone away, explaining that you don’t have the skills. Especially if they are sitting expectantly, a few feet away from your table. It’s even worse if they are already on it. In the age of social media and bad press, turning someone away can be hard on a business.
The choices seem limited. Fumble and fall, or invest a lot of time and money in a course?
The question becomes, “Do I have to specialize, just to see an occasional client with cancer?” And, “If I don’t want to specialize in it, why take a CE course in oncology massage therapy?
Not everyone is a specialist.
Not all of us want to specialize. Not everyone has to specialize. But as massage therapists, most of us end up serving a broad range of people, and that range includes people with cancer.
If we want serve our clients over their lifetimes, no matter what health issues they face, then we need to be ready to work with people with cancer.
If you want to serve that friend of the friend, or the woman with a long-ago breast cancer history, or your client’s parent with pancreatic cancer, a foundation is essential.
Without preparation, even an occasional client presentation can be overwhelming. Cancer is a collection of over 200 different diseases. As common as cancer is, it can look very different in different people.
How OMT training can help
It helps to meet them with some unifying principles. To have some case studies behind you, to have practiced what to say in difficult situations, and to have had supervised hands-on practice. A basic foundational course in oncology massage therapy provides exactly that.
With a foundation, you don’t have to muddle through, or refer out, or suffer the pain or backlash from not being able to serve someone. And there’s a bonus: massage therapists tell us that the skills of OMT transfer really well to serving clients with other complex medical conditions. So a single foundation can go a long way in practice.
Like everything else, OMT competes for limited CE dollars, and CE can be expensive. In the end, however, it is more cost-effective than avoiding an entire population of clients.
Oncology massage therapy should belong to all of us.
It can be argued that oncology massage therapy should be the work of all massage therapists, not just those who specialize.
Although some people call it a modality, OMT is not a distinct set of techniques. At the foundational level, it is an approach to Swedish/classical massage. In this approach, therapists modify massage to benefit people with cancer and cancer histories. They adapt to the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.
Notably, oncology massage therapy is not just a quick list of precautions. Instead, it is a way to sort through complicated health histories and figure out how to work. It is a system for communicating that work with clients receiving it.
Where does this system come from?
The content in foundational oncology massage therapy courses was coded into a set of standards by the Society for Oncology Massage (S4OM). They worked in partnership with nurses, physicians, pharmacists and other cancer care providers to develop standards of practice as well as standards of education.
S4OM screens instructors, who are then called Recognized Educational Providers (REPs). Their courses are listed on the S4OM website. In order to teach, REPs have at least 500 hours of clinical OMT behind them. All of the instructors on our team have met REP requirements, but there are additional, growing numbers of REPs worldwide. All teach foundational courses.
Therapists who specialize in OMT can choose to study beyond this foundational level. They can pursue advanced techniques aimed at lymphedema and scar tissue. They can supplement their learning with mentorship programs or advanced case studies.
But even without advanced coursework, after a single foundational course, you can provide great benefit to your clients.
A foundational course is for everyone.
The foundational OMT course is for any massage therapist who might see an occasional client with cancer or a cancer history. That would be every MT. Foundational OMT courses teach therapists to use classical massage therapy to benefit clients and keep them safe.
At this time, few entry-level massage therapy programs teach those skills. One day, we hope that these basics will be part of standard massage therapy school curriculum. Then we can all more fully claim oncology massage therapy as our own.
Until then, people with cancer continue to seek us out, and OMT skills enable us to serve them.
The job you already have is an oncology massage therapy job.
Cancer is part of our landscape. It affects our communities, colleagues, and current clients. It affects the client scheduled to see you next week or next year.
Increasingly, people with cancer and cancer histories turn to massage therapy for support and symptom relief. From there, many first-time clients become lifelong consumers of massage therapy.
So, yes. There are jobs in oncology massage therapy.
But more importantly?
There is work in oncology massage therapy.
With skills to rest on, you have options. You can serve an occasional client, who is likely to be extremely grateful for your care. You can see a few clients in a mixed practice. You can grow a whole specialty practice, or reach for a certain OMT job or program.
No matter how it plays out into your practice–serving many people, or just a few–oncology massage therapy is a welcome service. It is paid, purposeful work.
It is deeply rewarding work, as well.
The Society for Oncology Massage (www.s4om.org) lists foundational courses in oncology massage therapy. They set standards of practice and standards of education in OMT.
After completing a foundational course from a S4OM recognized educational provider, you can join S4OM and become listed as a preferred practitioner in their locator service. They hold the Oncology Massage Healing Summit conference every two years.
Cancer statistics from the National Cancer Institute. Accessed April 23, 2019.
Joint Commission advisory on non-pharmacologic and non-opioid solutions for pain management, August 28, 2019. Accessed April 23, 2019.