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The pain was in her legs, like something attacking her bones.
Renee Graves was admitted to IU Health Simon Cancer Center a week ago with multiple myeloma. The cancer of the plasma cells is what causes the pain.
Angela Stelljes wants to help manage that pain, even if it’s just for a few minutes. An oncology massage therapist, Stelljes worked as a massage therapist for more than a decade before she added a specialization in oncology.
According to the Society for Oncology Massage, it is typical for an oncology massage therapist to ask specific questions: "Oh, you're receiving radiation? Is it external beam or brachytherapy?" "You mentioned you had a mastectomy. Did you have reconstruction? If so, what kind?"
They want to understand the patient’s specific needs. They also want to understand the disease and how it affects the body; the side effects of cancer treatments, such as medications, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation; and the ability to modify massage techniques.
This is Stelljes’ second career. Her first degree was in human resources management with a minor in theater and dance. A native of Minnesota, she moved to New York where she worked for a time at theater club in Manhattan.
“One reason I pursued massage therapy is because I feel like touch is absent in our culture. I wanted to integrate more with patient care. I’ve heard caregivers say that the massage helps relieve stress for a patient and gives them something that life circumstances can’t give them. It’s a beautiful gift,” said Stelljes.
She takes notes on each patient. It’s part of the process in creating a therapeutic relationship.
“I’m part of a care team. I make adjustments based on observations, based on their platelet levels,” said Stelljes, who turns 38 this week. She started at IU Health a year ago.
As Stelljes begins massaging Renee Graves’ feet, Graves, the mother of two boys, begins to cry. She’s had bad days and not-so-bad days. This day is one that begins to improve.
“For the first time in my life I’ve had someone massage my feet, and then come back and do it all again,” said Graves.
Timing is important when it comes to patient touch. There are some days they just don’t want to be bothered. And there are some patients who are skeptical and even anxious about having someone touch their feet, said Stelljes.
“With each patient, I see the impact when I review my assessments,” said Jill Bailey, a social worker. “Last week we had a patient in hospice. Her husband was at her bedside in those final days. They’d been married for 38 years and it was a true love story,” said Bailey. “Angela showed up and was able to give them both a massage. It seemed like the timing was right and brought them some comfort.”
What Stelljes likes best about her role is that she meets patients where they are. They aren’t required to make another appointment, she just shows up. And she has dozens of stories about the benefits of skilled therapeutic touch. She can see the change in her patient’s face. She can feel it in their body.
“I can see how it relieves stress even if it’s only for a little while,” said Adam Moore, a nurse who works with oncology patients. “It helps them forget for just a little while why they are here.”
Stelljes visits many of the same patient’s more than once. She gets to know them and as she rubs their hands and feet she talks to them about their pain, their families, whatever they want to talk about. Sometimes she just listens. And sometimes there is silence.
Renee Graves talks about her pain. She has little appetite and she wants to feel stronger. The massage means the world to her.
“When you’re trying to win the cancer battle, everything matters. Millions and millions of people will come into my life and I’ll always spot the lady in the crowd who wasn’t afraid to touch my feet.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.