Reflexology in Advanced Cancer and Palliative Care
For patients living with advanced cancer, life can be a physical and emotional struggle every day. But it’s still possible to promote well-being and quality of life, and doing so should be considered a priority for all patients, whether they’re still receiving treatment or are coming to the end of their life.
Complementary therapies work alongside medical intervention to help patients with advanced cancer relax their body and mind, as well as provide opportunities for symptom relief.
This blog explores the staging, symptoms, and treatment of advanced cancer, and discusses how reflexology (in combination with a relaxation technique called the HEARTS process) can have a positive effect on both the physical condition and emotional wellbeing of patients with advanced cancer, including those receiving palliative care treatment.
The Different “Stages” of Cancer
“Staging” is the process of finding out how much cancer is in a person’s body and where it’s located. The “stage” of cancer gives information about the size of the tumour, how the tumour has progressed locally, and whether or not any cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.
“Early” stages of cancer include when the primary cancer is contained to the organ where it originated. As cancer progresses and moves through to the “advanced” stages, more lymph nodes become affected and the cancer spreads to other organs.
Not all cancers are staged in this way though. Some cancers are graded on how aggressively the tumour or the cancer cells are growing, like primary brain tumours and leukaemia.
For the purpose of this blog, the term “advanced cancer” will mean cancer that has either spread to other organs in the body, or an aggressive primary cancer with a terminal diagnosis.
Treatment for Advanced Cancer
As advanced cancer has spread to multiple organs or is a very aggressive cancer, a full cure becomes less likely. Treatment often still continues at this point, but instead of aiming for a cure, the aim of treatment is to prolong the patient’s life by trying to shrink the tumour and slow its growth and spread. Another major aspect of care is controlling the patient’s symptoms, and improving their quality of life.
Treatment options for advanced cancer include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgical procedures, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, and clinical trials. Many patients continue to live for months and even years after being told their cancer has advanced and spread. Although at some point, the side effects of these treatments will outweigh their benefits, and either the patient or the consultant may decide to withdraw from using them.
After this point, patients will receive care that focuses solely on controlling their symptoms and keeping them comfortable, as well as supporting and promoting their emotional wellbeing.
Complications of Advanced Cancer
Following their various treatments and as the cancer affects more organs in the body, the patient will experience more debilitating physical and psychological symptoms. Some of which include:
- Pain – Tumours can press on internal organs, bones, and nerves causing pain. Chemotherapy can cause pain and numbness in the extremities, and radiotherapy can cause the skin to burn. Weight loss can exacerbate pain. Pain can also be exacerbated by emotions such as low mood and depression.
- Shortness of breath – If cancer is present in the lungs, either as a primary diagnosis or as an area of metastasis, lung capacity is reduced. Shortness of breath is also a symptom of anaemia, which can be caused by the cancer or treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
- Lethargy – This is a common side effect of anaemia (see above) and can be extremely debilitating for patients with advanced cancer.
- Decreased mobility – Pain, lethargy, anaemia, low mood, and depression can all affect a person’s mobility. Poor mobility can lead to pressure ulcers. Bone metastases in the spine can also lead to spinal cord compression (a rare but serious condition), where the tumour presses on the spinal cord, leading to weakness, numbness, bladder and bowel dysfunction, and paralysis.
- Low mood, depression, anxiety, and emotional distress – Patients worry about both their present self, and about their future, as well as that of their family. They may be scared to die. They might have difficulty communicating their feelings to loved ones or professionals.
- Altered body image – a patient with advanced cancer often doesn’t look like their former self. Patients may have surgical scars and absent body parts, they might have hair loss from chemotherapy, or have experienced significant weight changes that can leave them looking emaciated or bloated (or both).
- Other specific changes
- Brain metastases can cause seizures and personality changes in the individual.
- Bone metastases in the spine can lead to spinal cord compression, a fairly rare but very serious complication where the tumour presses on the spinal cord, leading to weakness, numbness, bladder and bowel dysfunction, and paralysis. Ascites is a build-up of fluid in the abdominal space caused by complications from cancer.
- Ascites is a build-up of fluid in the abdominal space caused by complications from cancer. It can leave the patient extremely bloated, causing pain, difficulty mobilising, shortness of breath, nausea, loss of appetite, indigestion, constipation, and frequency of urination.
Reflexology for Advanced Cancer
Reflexology is a non-invasive touch therapy that promotes relaxation, wellbeing, and can help provide relief from some physical cancer symptoms and side effects of treatment. Reflexology is based on the theory that that there are certain points on the feet and hands that correspond to the organs and glands in the body. Massaging these points can help restore balance in those areas.
Reflexology is a complementary therapy, which means it’s used alongside medical treatment that’s being given or planned, to enhance the physical and emotional wellbeing of the individual. It is not a treatment or a cure for cancer.
Helping patients with advanced cancer achieve relaxation and calm is so incredibly important during this stressful and frightening time in their life. Studies have found that reflexology can help provide a deep sense of calm and relaxation, provide pain relief, and lift the mood. Although there is limited published studies, reflexology may also help reduce nausea and vomiting, increase energy levels, improve sleep quality, lift mood, and relieve pain and anxiety.
If you’re considering having reflexology alongside your medical treatment, or if you’re considering it for a loved one, discuss it with your (or their) doctor first.
Please note, patients with cancer should only receive treatment from a reflexologist with specific training or experience of treating patients with cancer.
My Combined Approach to Reflexology for Patients with Advanced Cancer
I qualified as a clinical reflexologist in January 2020, and I’ve attended training at the specialist cancer hospital The Christie Hospital, as well as having treated many patients with cancer (and their carers) professionally in both a hospice environment and through my own private practice.
I offer mobile reflexology treatments for patients with advanced cancer, where I come to you (or your loved one), and treat you in your home, or in a hospital or hospice (as local policy allows). During my treatments which last around an hour, I combine another “hands-on” relaxation technique called “the HEARTS process”, followed by a session of hand or foot reflexology.
The HEARTS process was a technique developed over time by a massage and aromatherapist who began working with cancer patients in Manchester in the early 1990s. She felt that she had to adapt her practice from her initial training to account for the challenges the cancer patients were facing, such as pain, fragile skin, fatigue, limited movement, and body image issues. HEARTS stands for Hands on, Empathy, Aromas, Relaxation, Textures, and Sound, and I tailor the different aspects of this to suit you and your needs, using aromatherapy and music in the session if you wish.
The whole treatment is given while you are in bed, and the “hands-on” aspect of HEARTS is done through fabric like clothes or bed covers, so there’s no need for you to undress and your dignity is maintained throughout.
With your consent, I’ll create a relaxing ambience by adjusting lighting, and using aromatherapy and background music. You are of course free to decline any element of the process. Next, I’ll remove your socks if you’re having foot reflexology and gently cleanse your feet with some wipes (or I’ll cleanse hands if you’re having hand reflexology instead).
Then I use a very light touch to slowly move my hands along your body (but over your clothes or bed covers) while you close your eyes and relax. At this time, I can gently talk to you, or talk you through a guided meditation also if you wish. This part of the treatment will last around 15-20 minutes, and then I’ll move on to the reflexology session on your feet or hands.
Patients have told me that they feel completely relaxed during the treatment and for the rest of the day, and that they enjoy the warm feeling from my hands and find the treatment incredibly soothing and calming.
I also offer treatments for caregivers and family members, as cancer affects everyone close to the patient also.
For a patient living with advanced cancer life is physically and emotionally draining. Supporting patient’s emotional needs at this time is crucial in promoting wellbeing and quality of life.
Reflexology, in particular when combined with the HEARTS process, can help the patient achieve relaxation and calmness, decrease their anxiety, and can also help relieve some physical symptoms that patients experience from their cancer or treatments. Reflexology and the HEARTS process can be performed by a suitably qualified and experienced therapist, and (following medical approval) is recommended for patients in any stage of advanced cancer, including end of life care.
If you’d like to know more about my services and the areas I cover then please send me a message on 07872023417 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org , leave your details, and I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.