The Power of Touch Helps Those with Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I spent this morning revisiting someplace I’d hoped never to see again: the infusion suite at our local cancer center.


    Before cancer, I remember visiting the hospital and walking blithely past hallway signs pointing to hematology/oncology, the breast program, the infusion suite...


    Amazingly, I had no idea what any of these words signified. I had some vague notion that oncology had to do with cancer. And the infusion suite sounded high-class and high-tech; for some reason, I had visions of a well-equipped health spa.


    But the rest? No business of mine. Thank God. Till suddenly it was. And I found out that the infusion suite wasn’t exactly a spa.

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    It’s been 5 years since I sat in those padded reclining chairs, spending 3 hours every 3 weeks getting the deadly poison that would cure or kill poured into my veins. The visceral memory of the experience fades, just as the physical pain of childbirth disappears.


    But I do recall vividly how the nurse would gown-up and don heavy gloves before carefully hanging the bags of chemicals on the gleaming steel gurney above my head. How she’d carefully avert her head, just slightly, as she stuck the needle into my forearm and started the slow, poisonous drip.


    That was my sign that this was indeed serious business; chemo would destroy those cancer cells… or it might destroy me.

    So why did I return to the infusion suite, site of those dark memories? Because I’ve joined the team of volunteers who give Reiki to patients receiving chemo.


    Briefly, Reiki is a Japanese system of relaxation and stress reduction that can promote the body’s ability to heal itself; it involves very gentle touch. And our local cancer center is enlightened enough to include it in its battery of services offered to patients. So there I was.

    I sat beside the bed of an older gentleman on his second day of a three-day treatment, and carefully held his hand, putting my other hand on his shoulder.


    And as he told me his life story, his wife nodding and smiling in the chair beside him, I could feel the warmth of our hands entwined, the feel of his shoulder muscles as he restlessly tried to get comfortable in bed.


    We felt connected, both on an emotional and physical level. And once again, I was reminded of the power of touch.

    Reiki is a regular way I connect with people; but it isn’t necessary to be a Reiki practitioner to reach out and touch someone. I work with several women who will often clasp my shoulder or put their hand on my arm as we stand and talk; I find their touch welcome and comforting.


    And though I wasn’t brought up in a “touchy-feely” family, I’m trying to develop the skill now, because I’ve come to firmly believe in its importance.


    My oncologist’s nurse-practitioner gives me a hug every time we meet, and it never fails to lessen the inherent tension of the 6-month check-in. In fact, when you’re worried, scared, or sad – emotions that surface quite a bit during cancer treatment – is there anything more comforting than human touch?


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    Sure, you can take Ativan to lessen stress; and you can cruise the Internet looking for scraps of hope buried in nearly incomprehensible medical articles. But sometimes there’s no better treatment than someone holding your hand, offering their shoulder for a good cry, or folding you up in a big bear hug.

    If you’re already a “hugger,” keep up the good work. And if you don’t consider yourself a “touchy” person, maybe you could give it a try.


    Start with your friends. And before you know it, you might find yourself brave enough to offer your hand to the woman sitting next to you in the waiting room, tears slipping down her face as she quietly waits for the next step in her cancer journey.


    Maybe your touch, at that moment, is just what the doctor ordered. Even if he didn’t.

Published On: September 18, 2006