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Cancer in the Spa

Morag Currin June 2010 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
cancer survivor

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Editor’s note: Before offering new or specialized services, spa professionals must undergo the proper training. Also, make sure clients living with cancer consult with their physicians before receiving any spa services.

With cancer statistics on the rise, there is a very good chance that a person living with cancer—or a cancer survivor, caregiver or family member—will seek out solace in a spa. Because of this, spa professionals should consider becoming educated about how to work with patients living with, or dealing with, cancer.

Although the focus of oncology esthetics is primarily on people living with cancer, it is important to understand that at times, these clients may have additional complications beyond the disease itself. They also may experience health issues or disabilities, including the effects that can occur by ingesting a cocktail of medications.

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What is Cancer?

Cancer is the term given to a group of diseases caused by an uncontrollable growth and spread of abnormal cells. Cancer cells, also referred to as malignant cells, are cells that have been genetically altered to look and function differently from normal cells. Thus, cancer is actually a disease of the cells and involves a series of mutations or changes in the genetic makeup, or DNA, in the cell.

Normal cells in the body usually divide when the body needs more cells. When signaling for new cells, the body is careful that it only triggers cells to divide when it needs more so that cell birth equals cell death.

Proto-oncogenes, cells that promote cell division, and tumor suppressor genes, which keep cell division in check, are in place to control cell division in an organized way.

In most cancers, the cells undergo at least four mutations, and in many cancers, mutations occur in both the proto-oncogene, making it an oncogene, as well as the tumor suppressor gene, so that there is no longer any control of cell division.

Cancer cells differ from normal cells in a number of ways. Cancer cells have uncontrolled, often rapid, growth rates. Generally, they are not encapsulated, so that the shape of the tumor is irregular, often with finger-like projections that invade neighboring tissue. They also have an abnormal structure, which often is poorly differentiated and has the ability to migrate or spread.

Metastases, or spread of tumor cells beyond the primary mass, can occur in three specific ways:

  • Direct invasion of tumor cells into nearby tissue or organs.


  • Lymphatic spread of tumor cells to local or distant lymph nodes.


  • Hematologic spread of tumor cells to distant sites through the blood.


Specialized Cancer Services

Each client needs to have a spa treatment personalized based on how they are at the moment; whether the treatment is taking place during cancer therapies or during recovery. Estheticians can add services such as an oncology facial, or any hand or foot massage, Reiki, reflexology and oncology massage after receiving advanced training.

Lymph node removal or radiation require adjustments during massage in both pressure and direction. Certain situations, such as a port in the décolleté, require avoidance of that area. Radiation to the chest or throat requires avoidance of that area both on the back and the front of the body. Positioning, pressure, site restrictions, skin side effects and product selection all have to be taken into consideration when working on a person living with cancer.

No spa equipment should be used on clients during cancer therapies. For the most part, cancer patients have dry, dehydrated, sensitive skin that tears easily and requires soothing, hydrating and moisturizing treatments. Psychologically, clients require touch, listening and acceptance of their condition.

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