Until last year, Charlie Yommer would not have considered treating himself to a facial. That was before the cancer.
In mid-2017, doctors discovered Yommer, 58, had prostate cancer. Then came a bladder cancer diagnosis the following June. The second diagnosis, a more aggressive cancer, meant Yommer was driving nearly three hours one-way to Johns Hopkins Hospital for chemotherapy sessions. But the day before his treatments, Yommer makes a stop at the Four Seasons Baltimore.
Yommer is among the growing score of patients turning to spa-like treatments to ease their cancer symptoms. Facials, acupuncture and massage may seem more suited for spa clients looking to be pampered, but studies show such treatments can relieve pain, reduce swelling and improve patients’ outlook in ways traditional medicine sometimes can’t.
Yommer said the benefits go beyond the serums and masks applied to his face.
“Being a cancer patient, there’s just so much more than just the cancer itself. It’s thought process, the unknown,” Yommer said. “The radiation or the chemo treatments dries you out. Your skin gets red in different spots. And this helps hydrate the skin. You feel like a new person. It takes that irritation away, the inflammation, and it’s 25 minutes of relaxation and enjoyment.”
While there’s little scientific evidence backing benefits of facials in cancer treatment, literature supports the positive effects of treatments like massage and acupuncture in cancer patients, said Dr. Elizabeth Nichols, director of the University of Maryland Department of Radiation Oncology. She said those options are being more widely accepted and promoted by physicians as part of cancer care.
“In the cancer community, there just overall is an increasing focus on the benefit of integrative therapies, and so I think this is something that’s definitely here to stay. It’s not a fad,” she said.
Nichols has watched patients who have had acupuncture reduce or eliminate their pain medications, and she’s seen others suffering from chemotherapy-induced nausea have their symptoms fade.
Donna Chang, a nurse and aesthetician who heads the Mercy Medi-Spa, agreed that acupuncture treats a range of symptoms.
“Whatever you’re going through — any kind of side effect from chemotherapy and/or stress-related — acupuncture is excellent for that,” she said.
As for massage, the technique has been shown to reduce pain, fatigue and lymphedema, the swelling in arms and legs cancer patients sometimes experience due to fluid buildup in the lymphatic system.
“The way that we think about oncology massage is it’s a specialized focus,” said Mary Aguilera-Titus, a massage therapist. “You need to adjust your massage according with each specific person.”
Massage therapists use many of the same techniques on cancer patients that they would in standard massages, but they take into account factors like blood counts and bone density, and adjust the speed, direction and placement of the massage to minimize discomfort.
“The whole point is to not make a bigger demand on their body, mind, spirit,” Aguilera-Titus said. “The treatment is already demanding.”