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The therapist’s view: spa treatments when you have cancer

Julia Briscoe is the Head of Complementary Therapies for Barts Health NHS Trust , delivering complementary therapies to NHS patients with and recovering from cancer. As she joins talks with the Spa Life Academy to break down barriers between spas and cancer, we ask her what her work is all about…

What does your work involve?

I set up the service nearly 10 years ago when we started providing complementary therapies for palliative (end of life) care. Since then it has grown and now we work with anybody from the point of diagnosis. We help people adjust to their diagnosis, cope with treatments, to being well (survivorship in itself is a big adjustment), or end of life care. On a daily basis I am managing the team, teaching, and spending time on the shop floor at Whipps Cross Hospital.

What were you doing before?

I started off as an A&E nurse, and over time I became more and more holistic in my approach. I moved to different positions and trained in complementary therapy and then this job came up, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect.

What impact do you find that complementary therapy has on cancer patients?

It has a really big impact. We did an evaluation and 90% of clients noticed some difference in their symptoms while 50% noticed a big difference. We help with anxiety management, nausea, and the whole psychological side of dealing with operations and chemotherapy. Fatigue is a big thing for a lot of people. When people are diagnosed with cancer their lives can be taken over - however well everything is planned, they can’t account for whether they will feel well enough to go on holiday or do things. There is a sense of losing control and complementary therapy can go some way towards giving that back. This is also a time when your body is feeling bad, but therapy helps to redress that balance and provide positive feelings.

Do you find that anyone in particular benefits from it?

I think there’s a real equality from a gender perspective. Men seem to benefit everso slightly more, which is odd because they are harder to get into the treatment room, but it benefits everyone. We have a lot of people who come to us and have never heard of reflexology or aromatherapy, so they arrive a little skeptical but they realize how lovely it is and it becomes something they can look forward to it.

Are there any drawbacks?

No, because it’s so adaptable. If someone can’t have touch therapy then we will use aroma stick inhales - and they can help with nausea, breathlessness, and other things. The only limit is that because we are within the limits of the NHS we can only see people for six sessions. They can be re-referred when needed, but it does mean we need to be very structured with our approach. That said, outside individual treatment we have a health and wellbeing programme of events and a support group that people can drop into once a week.

What are the misconceptions about complementary therapy when it comes to cancer?

There’s one big message, and that’s that it’s not safe to massage anyone with cancer because it will spread cancer around the body, which there is no evidence for. I think the other one is fear among therapists of hurting someone, which is understandable but avoidable, and something I think we can change with education.

Why do you think it is important that the spa industry makes big changes with the way they treat cancer sufferers?

I’ve experienced patients on a number of occasions who have been turned away at spas and it has left them devastated. All those things you have done to build them up to enjoy and benefit from the experience, and it’s all undone in one big blow. You go to a spa to relax and unwind, and that’s all undone. Of course there are things that you can and can’t do at a spa when you’re having chemotherapy, but you don’t need to hone in on that; there’s always something you can enjoy.

Do you find that patients are nervous about having complementary therapy?

No, not nervous. Apprehensive sometimes, if they don’t know about it, but people who know what they are expecting and tend to really look forward to it. For anyone who is apprehensive, that soon changes.

What would you like people to understand about complementary therapy that you think gets lost in translation?

I think people don’t realise the benefits it can have in terms of the bigger picture. In our sessions we will tend to focus on two big issues specific to each client, but on a wider level it improves quality of life to a high degree. It helps carers as well to see someone who is unwell being looked after and cared for. People need to understand that it’s complementary therapy, not an alternative.

What do you enjoy about your work?

The variety. I love the fact that I work on a multi-disciplinary level - with doctors, patients, nurses and physiotherapists. I love all the different people that I meet as well.

Do you have a favourite treatment and why?

To give, I would say my favourite treatment is reflexology because I think it’s the most portable for a hospital, and if someone is very confused you can use their hands so that if they withdraw them then they have withdrawn consent - the boundaries are very clear. I also love to teach mindfulness, it really builds resilience. To have myself though? My favourite treatment is Shiatsu.

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