Human touch has the power to heal and comfort. But for many people battling cancer, it also can conjure up painful memories of cancer treatments.

“Most of the time when they’re getting touched, it’s by medical professionals,” explained Nissa Valdez, a certified oncology massage therapist. “It’s often painful or prodding. I concentrate on making them feel good.”

Valdez, founder of Estrella Apothecary & Spa in south Minneapolis, is on a mission to help cancer patients through therapeutic massage.

Once a month, she offers to give someone with cancer a free facial or massage at her spa. She also holds “spa days” from time to time when people with cancer are invited to come in to have services free of charge.

The goal is not only relaxation, but also therapy.

“I’m hoping to bolster their system so they are stronger and can move through their treatment process in a way that they’re stronger,” Valdez said.”I’m not looking to cure someone, but to support them.”

The body is constantly on high alert, she explained. When cancer is present, the nervous system’s alert response is even more elevated.

“Keeping people out of that constant ‘fight or flight’ will help them deal with the disease and treatment more effectively,” Valdez suggested.

Her interest in oncology massage began many years ago, when clients with cancer often would ask her for a massage.

At the time, the belief in the therapeutic massage industry was that it would be harmful because it could spread the cancer throughout the body, she said.

But she soon learned about a place in Santa Fe, N.M., that offered training in oncology massage and signed up.

After completing the 300 hours of training, she joined the ranks of certified oncology massage therapists nationwide.

In the meantime, Valdez’s own family was struck by the disease.

Her sister was found to have breast cancer during Valdez’s first oncology massage class. A few months later, her husband was found to have lymphoma.

“I felt like I was definitely doing the right thing,” she said of her decision to help people with cancer through massage.

The work has taught her much about how to live purposely.

“Most people said that the cancer diagnosis was the scariest thing but also the best thing that happened to them,” she said. “They learned to live with intention.

“With that kind of thinking, many people are really open with me and share things that are really personal,” she said. “I’m always so grateful that I can be that person.”