On the way to my daughter’s school each morning, we pass a line of dense brown bushes in a neighbor’s front yard. Every morning, the bushes shriek at us. They shake and tremble and scream, making a huge deal out of something. On my return trip, they do it again.
One morning, curious about the fuss, I stopped a few feet away and squinted at the bushes. As my eyes grew accustomed to the branchy interior, I saw probably a hundred puffy little sparrows staring back at me, momentarily silent.
Now, airborne against a clear sky, they were a spectacular mass. I watched them sweep and swoop and disappear.
I’m no bird-recognizer, and I had to ask one to identify the sparrows for me. To my untrained eye, not one small brown bird stood out from its crowd of small brown birds. It took the whole flock against a different background to see them much at all.
On the other hand…
…When I spot a cardinal, I am positively expert. I am triumphant. A cardinal! I shriek, watching the living spot of blood against the dying snow. LOOK!
I am thrilled at the colorful sign of life flitting about our barren backyard. Even the female cardinal, not nearly so flashy, is no lightweight on the color spectrum. Of course, when a human tunnels through 7 feet of snow to get anywhere, a sign of any life in any color signals a light at the end of it all.
(One day, I will stop writing about snow. Please understand, it’s all we’ve got now. Bear with me.)
For three months of winter, I hibernate. All travel and teaching are suspended. This winter, historic Boston weather has made it hard to move around outside, so I’ve spent more than the usual time inside in the quiet, reflecting on my work.
I’ve dreamed a diagram this winter, one of those Venn diagrams from primary school. That bright center circle is oncology massage therapy (OMT), inside the unique field of massage therapy, inside the unique grouping of integrative therapies. Overlapping with health care over here. Or inside wellness, overlapping with touch. Inside life. Close your eyes and you can see it.
Against all of those ovals and circles, how well does our work stand out?
Not so well. I love our unassuming ways, our quiet work behind the scenes, but sometimes I want a little more fanfare. MTs and OMTs, mind that center spot, the bulls-eye. That is you in there.
Massage therapy is special.
Massage therapy is really special. It is really special. There aren’t many people who can do what we do. We soothe, comfort, reduce certain symptoms, and even ease anxiety and depression, all with the sustained, trained touch of our hands. It’s remarkable. Inside our everyday massage-caves, we forget this. We’re too busy living it to even notice.
And then there’s oncology massage therapy…
Within massage, oncology massage therapy is really special. We may help reduce side effects, help people sleep. Help them cope. With one session, just a tiny bit, we broaden the support for one hero’s journey. With a course of therapy, we take our place in the circle of care.
There, I said it. Special.
I don’t mean that to sound precious or insipid. (I can hear the word, exaggerated: “SPEH-shull!” It makes me cringe.)
Not that kind of special.
I mean the proud and loud special. The stand-out-in-sharp-relief special.
The kind of special that helps a client find you and say, there he is. There she is. The oasis I’ve been looking for, the one I didn’t even know I needed. Finally.
When I talk to OMTs struggling to make their way in this work, they tell me they feel lonely, not special. They feel utterly on their own. Often they are the only person in their town, or even for miles around, in their specialty. The only one with training or expertise to see a client through cancer treatment and beyond. The only one who knows how to question a client about their health and treatment, how to sort out the most important information, and how to adapt the session accordingly.
The work is special, and often it is isolating. And until we fully populate all the corners of the towns and the hospitals and the franchises, until basic massage education routinely trains MTs to work skillfully with oncology clients, it will remain that way.
There’s a strange upside to that loneliness: We are far from becoming saturated with OMTs. This sacred service is badly needed and there is not enough of it. You’d think people would flock to us, just because we’re here. In fact, we’re so few and far between, it might make our work invisible, rather than the other way around.
Finding a niche is important, but you also have to help the niche find you.
Even with unique skills, it can be tough to declare ourselves. Perhaps it’s modesty, or an allergy to self-promotion.
Perhaps we shrink because we are not taught, out of school, to refine or express our professional identity. This is one reason I created the Oncology Massage Therapy Advanced Mentorship Program, enrolling now, to help OMTs move their work forward, out into the world.
It takes practice to move into that identity. Imagine us practicing in front of a mirror.
“What I do is special.”
“Yes, it is relaxation massage, but I tailor it to specific needs.”
“I serve people during some really important times in their lives. During treatment. At end of life. Post-treatment.”
“My work requires a certain kind of clinical thinking. Part of what I do is cultivate that thinking, so I can best serve my clients.”
We also have to say the big, “I am here.”
The essence of our work is that statement of presence. No matter what is going on in the client’s body, our hands say, “I am here with you.”
It’s good to take that statement outside, too, amped up a bit. Plant yourself on the map, right there on the Venn diagram: I am here.
Over here. Three afternoons a week. Pleased to meet you.
Sometimes, in order to be found, we have to make a bit more noise. Step out of the shrubbery and into the sky, or do a little hoppy-bird dance thing.
Take on a bit of color.
Stand out against the fallen, falling snow.