Turning Distress into De-stress: Focusing on Wellness for Clients with Cancer

By Julie Bach, Executive Director, Wellness for Cancer

The perfect storm is brewing for spas to step up the services we offer within our communities. The sheer number of people dealing with cancer, the receptivity of doctors to refer to the spa industry, along with the propensity of clients to seek solace and self-care from spas is enough to warrant the industry’s attention.

Additionally, the accrediting body of cancer centers has raised awareness about the link between stress and cancer, instituting a mandatory distress screening for all patients. For those fitting a certain stress threshold, hospitals may need to refer those patients out to receive services that will help them de-stress.

Your clients need you.

Chances are, you know the statistics. One in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. That means 33-50% of your clients will be diagnosed at some point in their lifetime. And yet, many spas continue to question why they should invest in training to work with individuals who have had or are dealing with cancer.

I believe the reason for resistance to training is in the way we look at cancer. Perhaps, even more specifically, the challenge we face is in the way that training has been marketed in the past—as oncology. Yet oncology is a medical term that refers to the study of cancer rather than its treatment. I, myself, am guilty of having misused this word in the past. I’ve since grown in my understanding of the work I do. My center is not a disease care center; but rather, it is a wellness center. And the services I provide depend on my ability to meet my client wherever she or he is on the wellness spectrum. My business’s success depends on my staff’s ability to tailor a service based on each client’s presenting conditions.

When we focus on wellness, then we are able to see with clarity the opportunity and feasibility to help our clients. When, however, we focus on disease, the process can be very uncomfortable and less than satisfactory for both the spa’s staff and the client. In order to provide you with a new lens through which to see and embrace the opportunity that is before you to serve your clients, here are seven ideas to consider.

1. Get Out of the Oncology Box. We are not disease-care; we are wellness

We don’t treat disease. We don’t treat the side effects of the disease. We can help to address the side effects from treatments, but we cannot make any promises. And we can help our clients evoke the relaxation response, which in turn calms their bodies neurologically, chemically, and hormonally. Clients healing from cancer don’t want the “oncology spa service.” They want to be and feel normal. Most especially, they want to make sure that you are trained to understand their presenting conditions and know what to do within the scope of your license. They are not asking that you have a medical background or be the cancer specialist.

2. Get Into the Wellness Mindset

Clients healing from cancer are told by their doctors that if they want to be here for their families, then their number one job is self-care and wellness. It’s a fact that clients who have had cancer are at an increased risk from the general population for a secondary cancer and for a secondary disease. Wellness is a must! In order to help our clients, we need to meet them where they are on the wellness spectrum. There is a lot of talk in the industry about wellness, but disease is where the rubber meets the road. We cannot be wellness for only people who are on the well end of the spectrum.

3. Be Prepared Because You Never Know. Here’s the truth

Clients don’t always tell the truth. Many clients don’t tell you that they have or have had cancer. Suddenly, you are doing a massage and you notice a scar. You ask them about it and then you discover they had cancer. The cancer is not the key issue, however. The real question to consider is this: Do they have any present conditions that you need to be aware of, such as lymphedema, for instance? When you are trained, you are able to find out this information without even having a discussion about cancer. It’s about having a decision tree and knowing the presenting conditions and the appropriate adjustments that enable you to adapt your service—sometimes on the fly. So it is best to be prepared.

4. Get Trained as a Team

When you train as a team and do it as part of an event, there is excitement and momentum for everyone. There is cross-training between massage therapists, estheticians, and manicurists. There is camaraderie. Cancer awareness becomes normal and embedded into your business processes. Conversely, when you only train a few of your staff, then cancer training remains a black box for the “exceptional” client. Everyone should be trained on what to do and when to refer. Some of your staff can even elect to specialize.

5. Get Your Front Desk Involved in the Training

When a client calls and says they have cancer, your front desk should not say, “Oh, I am sorry.” They should not feel uncomfortable speaking with the client. They need to know what questions to ask, how to gather pertinent information, and most importantly, they must sound confident and remain calm.

6. Be Prepared with Prop Kits, Back Bar, and Appropriate Retail

Client comfort and positioning is one of the most important details you need to be prepared for. Your prop kit should be ready to go—whether it is for in-house clients or out-call services. You should always be prepared to position your clients effectively. Additionally, patients report that skin and nail changes are the second most unexpected side effects of their medical treatments. Be prepared to help them.

7. Hospitals Need a Place to Refer Clients

Beginning January 2015, all accredited cancer centers have instituted mandatory distress screenings. This means that if a patient hits a certain threshold of stress, the hospital staff has to develop a personal de-stress plan. Hospital staff members are overworked and need to focus on the clients who are in the most dangerous situations. Many individuals who are not in imminent danger can be helped to de-stress through spa services, meditation, breath work, and yoga. Hospitals are looking for a place to refer.

In summary, take the first step and embrace the needs of your existing clients and your community. If you think that no one who walks into your facility has or has had cancer, then you are simply not asking the right questions. Be in the know. Be prepared. And provide a meaningful and beautiful session to each and every client.

Julie Bach is the executive director for Wellness for Cancer, an educational program under Spa4ThePink, a registered 501c(3) organization. A spa owner since 2001, Julie is a licensed esthetician and manicurist, certified health coach, and yoga teacher. She also holds a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University. Please visit Wellness for Cancer to learn more about Julie and the Wellness for Cancer program.

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