Lynne Lambillotte is halfway through a two-year journey for treatment of the advanced cancer first discovered in her breast. The surgery and six months of chemotherapy are behind her. She is now in the middle of drug infusions every three weeks at Florida Cancer Specialists in Lakewood Ranch. Once that is finished, she will need two months of radiation.
Her body seems to be responding to the aggressive therapy -- PET scans show no signs of cancer -- but it has made her feel achy and tired.
"I fell apart with the chemotherapy," she said. Walking her dog was too much. She didn't have the stamina and her hips hurt after only a short distance. Her neck ached, too.
Then last spring she met oncology massage therapist Toni Muirhead. Florida Cancer Specialists, which has clinics throughout the state, had just started a pilot program for oncology massage at its Lakewood Ranch location.
Muirhead offered to massage Lambillotte's neck as she sat in the infusion chair. It felt so good that Lambillotte started making appointments every other week for a full massage at the clinic. The achiness in her neck and hip began to subside.
"I don't think the doctors realize how beneficial it is," said Lambillotte, who is 70 and lives in Bradenton. "If nothing else, it boosts your morale by doing something like this. You see that you can feel better.
"Little by little, I realized I could clean the house a little better. I could take walks," she said.
"I just feel more like Lynne -- that's the only way to describe it. I feel like I'm coming back."
Lambillotte's glowing results may not happen for everyone. But according to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that oncology massage can reduce stress and anxiety for cancer patients and help them feel better.
Large cancer centers like M.D. Anderson in Texas and the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa have long offered massage and other therapies such as acupuncture as part of integrative wellness programs. The therapies are meant to complement standard cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, not as a cure but to assist patients who want to try something more.
Florida Cancer Specialists began its new wellness program this year. Doctors at each location can choose whether they want to offer it.
Plans for the Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota clinics are to offer not only massage but also bring in nutritionists to talk about diet, said Debra Betterly, the wellness program coordinator at Florida Cancer Specialists.
In the downtown Sarasota clinic, she said, plans are to offer a wellness series with demonstrations of modalities like Reiki, an energy-moving technique developed in Japan.
Muirhead approached the clinic about starting an oncology massage program after she moved to Bradenton last May. She had worked for 13 years at the Memorial Cancer Institute near Miami as an oncology massage therapist before relocating across the state.
One of her concerns was about how cancer patients need to understand that not every massage therapist is aware of the special needs of people who are undergoing cancer treatment or have had treatments such as surgery.
Oncology massage is modified for each patient according to the type of treatment or cancer he or she is dealing with.
If a woman has had lymph nodes removed from her armpit during breast cancer surgery, for instance, she runs the risk of developing lymphedema, a potentially debilitating condition that causes the arm to swell up.
Deep massage of the area should be avoided, said Muirhead.
"Any time you have a node removed, even one or two, there is a lifetime risk of developing lymphedema," she said.
"Women are told not to have blood pressure taken or a needle stick in that arm. But they don't ever think to tell patients 'don't get a deep massage,' " said Muirhead.
Sometimes a gentle massage or even nothing more than a hand or foot massage can help bring a better sense of wellbeing, she said.
Massage induces the relaxation response, when the body automatically relaxes. Simply being gently touched also helps patients feel they are more than their tumors, said Muirhead.
At the Florida Cancer Specialists clinics in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota, patients book appointments for massages apart from a doctor visit. Cost runs to about $1 per minute, said Muirhead, and generally isn't covered by insurance.
Massage appointments also are open to people who aren't Florida Cancer Specialists patients, said Betterly.
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com.