How Giving Hand Massages to Cancer Patients Helps Them – And Me, Too

Dana-Farber volunteer Hilda Santos gives a hand massage to patient Sayde Patel, one of her Wednesday "regulars."
Dana-Farber volunteer Hilda Santos gives a hand massage to patient Sayde Patel, one of her Wednesday “regulars.”

By Hilda Santos

One day six years ago, my sister Palmira called me from Dana-Farber with an idea. Her husband, Bob, was in treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and a volunteer had just approached his chair asking if he wanted a hand massage during his chemotherapy infusion. Seconds later, Palmira was on the phone.

“This would be a perfect fit for you,” she said to me. “You need to apply.”

Palmira knew I was at a crossroads professionally. I had recently been laid off after 26 years with the same employer, a stressful life event that forced me to think about my next chapter. I needed to decide what things were most important to me, and in that moment Palmira helped me find one of them — comforting and caring for cancer patients as a volunteer.

Cancer was already a big part of my life. My husband, Jeff, is a colon cancer survivor, and I had accompanied many other family members and friends to Dana-Farber for appointments and infusions. I saw firsthand the genuine, compassionate care demonstrated to each patient. There was no wrong question, or any limit to the number of questions, that someone could ask. The staff and volunteers helping them were thorough, patient, and supportive.

I learned so much from these visits, including that we can all make a difference in the lives of a cancer patient and their caregivers – just by being present. Time is a most precious gift, and if you give it to a patient this precious gift will comfort your soul.

Shortly thereafter I was trained as a licensed massage therapist as part of the Hands On Care Volunteer Program, overseen by the Eleanor and Maxwell Blum Patient and Family Resource Center and the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living. I started work shifts each Wednesday — offering mini hand massages to infusion patients on different treatment floors. Immediately, I noticed that our 15-minute sessions seem to help decrease the anxiety many patients feel during chemotherapy. They smile, relax, and enjoy a peaceable escape from treatment.

It’s not just about the massages; it’s also about being a good listener. I’ve developed close relationships through the years with patients I call my “regulars,” and sometimes they will say, “Hilda, I don’t need a massage today. Would you mind just sitting with me?” So I bring them a blanket, my second favorite thing to do, and we talk about whatever they want.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the role. I so look forward to coming here to be with our patients, and the supportive Dana-Farber staff who make you feel part of the team. It is a tremendous feeling when a nurse asks you to see a patient who is having his or her first infusion. The nurses know how relaxing a hand massage can be, and how it helps to ease first-day fears.

Every volunteer contributes. We have no time clocks, per se; our patients can have all the time they need for a friendly conversation, a listening ear, or a comforting touch. The friendships that I have developed with patients over these six years have touched my heart and soul. At the end of the day, I pause to reflect on these shared moments, saying to myself what a privilege and an honor it is to witness the strength these patients display in facing their disease.

Learn about becoming a volunteer at Dana-Farber.