Oncology Massage Therapist (Cancer Specialist) Toni Muirhead Found Compassion in Frustration

Toni Muirhead

I am an independent contractor working part time for FL Cancer Specialists & Research Institute. Recently moved to Parrish, FL and was lucky to continue working as an oncology massage therapist.

My massage schedule covers 3 locations in Sarasota and Bradenton, FL. Prior to moving to the west coast of FL, I worked for Memorial Cancer Institute for 12 years.

I work 4 hour shifts offering free massage to patients as they receive chemotherapy or any other procedure at the office. I also offer 30 and 60 minute massages at those centers that patient can schedule and self pay.

As a FL and National Provider I am also the lead massage instructor as other FCS practices choose to initiate an oncology massage program. Many Massage Therapists also take my class to help them work with their clients or family diagnosed with cancer.

I went into massage at 47 after working as a dialysis tech for 10 years and also having a clay art program and pottery business. Creating in clay is my first love, but after reading an article about massage therapy I thought it would be a way to get back into the medical field.

I liked the idea of a profession that I could interact and help people using the same skills that make me a good potter. Good palpable skills, centering myself to concentrate and paying attention to details.

Amazingly my pottery skills make be a better massage therapist. My slower, gentler approach is good for older clients, patients suffering from anxieties and of course oncology patients. When I entered massage school I was concerned about my physical ability to be a massage therapist. Would my hands and back be able to do the deeper work and for how long?

One of the reasons I wanted to specialize in geriatrics or oncology massage was I hoped it would not be as strenuous as sports massage. I was also concerned about the cost of massage school vs earning potential. I chose a Technical School and not a private massage school because the cost was very reasonable. I have been very lucky not to have to work full time, which has lengthened the years that I could work.

My specialty is oncology massage; my interest began in massage school when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As a result of many volunteer events at Memorial Cancer Institute, I I was offered a position at Memorial Cancer Institute in Pembroke Pines FL, a year after I graduated from massage school. That program is still going strong and run by one of my former students.

The contributing factors that allow me to continue to safely practice oncology massage would be that I have immersed myself in everything concerning the diagnosis of cancer; treatments and side effects of cancer treatment. Attending conferences in my area that pertained to cancer and survivorship issues have help me streamline massage to help my patients.

I was an Associate member of Oncology Social Workers and Oncology Nursing Society which gave me access to research, conferences and patient events. I became the expert in my area on oncology massage and presented at various events that helped me to network in my community. What I love the most about my job is educating patients and the healthcare professional about the benefits of massage during cancer treatments.

What I don’t like; sometimes the indifference from staff that choose not to see the value of massage, patients who believe their untrained massage therapists won’t hurt them, massage therapists that choose not to get training in oncology massage, massage training that is too expensive and doesn’t take into consideration the cost of training and the true earning potential for massage therapists, massage schools that want your total training program before they allow you to teach as a continuing education provider, and massage schools that sign up students that they shouldn’t and that will never be able to pay off the loans for school.

If I could change anything, again I would change cost of training and cost of continuing education. I have spoken to too many therapists that have loans that are too high for what they are earning. CEU courses for massage therapy cost way more than for nurses’ continuing education. I wish I could change the perspective that massage is more than “just a rub or it feels good.” Research is showing the benefits of touch and that information is not always getting the medical community.

Continuing with my wish list, I wish all schools had the same level of training. It amazes me that new massage therapists are coming into the profession with minimal medical skills to deal with so many special populations. Too many times I have met a client who feels their special massage therapist is the “best” only to find out they were performing massage that could potentially have harmed the client during or after cancer treatment.

Ironically I have discovered in the oncology massage world that chemo site massage training is not always considered as important as a full body oncology massage during treatment. Anyone that watches me interact with a patient immediately would notice me multitasking; massaging a patient while teaching safe massage practices for home massage, offering personalized compassionate touch , while at the same time knowing every person in that clinic is watching my clinical skills.

I wish oncology massage could be taught at a basic intro level as part of massage curriculum. We all meet survivors and massage therapists need to communicate why they can’t have deep massage after treatment or why nodal dissection will affect their new normal massage.

Even as it gets closer for me to retire, I hope to continue helping people deal with the stress of illnesses, possibly through a church ministry. I am also looking forward to teaching pottery again and creating my own designs.

I am always telling students that take my class to continue their education, that their hands won’t last forever. If they like massage, I suggest that they continue on with OT or PT or nursing and become a holistic nurse.

As for advice to other students – I would recommend they check out the graduation rate of any massage school they are interested in; how many pass the licensing test and if possible how many are working as massage therapists 5 years after graduation. Not sure about observing a real classroom, if that would help someone find the right school. Maybe open house events for prospective students to get the feel of the school, instructors, and teaching philosophies.

What do you recommend for someone who wants to go to massage school but cannot afford it?

That is difficult, schools need to make money and offer school loans. I think schools need to be selective and pick potential students that seem a good fit. I guess Steiner Corp has a good business model, train them and hire them.

My three biggest points of advice for an aspiring massage therapist today? What should they do/not do? What should they think about and consider?

I think I have answered this, get your massage license, work awhile and then go back to school. Understand that you are a sole proprietor and you need to market yourself to be recognized for your skills. Every newbie needs to just get out and work at a spa, to massage as many people as possible. Volunteer in your community, but be selective, find your niche that you want to help.

Any open thoughts / comments – anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, the massage industry, profession, future, etc? If nothing, make one prediction for the future of massage?

As frustrating as my career has been, it has made me a passionate, resilient, compassionate and patient person. Roadblocks became challenges and door shut became possibilities someplace else. I know now I would have been a great PT if I had stayed in school. But I know that being a massage therapist gave me the chance to be fully present, sit with patients and be part of their care during very difficult times.

What is your passion outside of massage? What are your hobbies and interests which you pursue when you are not working? Tell us why you enjoy what you enjoy.

My passion is my pottery, recently I have started to work again and combine my work with raising money for massages for patients who can’t afford massage. I have a kiln and wheel in my studio and hopefully will start to teach pottery again at my church.

I country line dance, kayak, actively work at 10,000 steps a day, and volunteer one night a week at Southeastern Guide Dogs in the puppy kennel. All of these activities convince me that the relaxation response is vital to one’s life and yoga or meditations are not the only way to achieve a quiet mind.

Antoinette Muirhead, LMT, NCBTMB, is a lead massage therapist for FL Cancer Specialists & Research Institute.

Neal Lyons is a founding member and volunteer contributor at the MTSI Institute, an information based portal dedicated to guiding and assisting aspiring massage therapists establish a successful career in massage. Neal is a published author and has collaborated on several mobile applications that serve the massage profession. You can view his published work on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and on Google+

3 comments on “Oncology Massage Therapist (Cancer Specialist) Toni Muirhead Found Compassion in Frustration
  1. Michelle Trevino,LMT says:

    I was wondering if you teach CEU classes forr onocology massage?

    Michelle Trevino, LMT

    • Neal Lyons says:

      Michelle, we are not a CEU providing organization, but we do provide free information that can help you. many of our readers are CEU providers and may reply back to your comment.

  2. Susan says:

    Does Neil do massages on chem pa tients? I am currently under going chemo for ovarian cancer treatment.at FCL Lakewood ranch. Am interested in finding a practioner.

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