Making It Up As We Go Along

By Lauren Muser Catesgoldfish

Oncology massage is full of “it depends” and “maybe, but…” scenarios. This feature may truly be at the root of why I love it so much. There is no one answer and there never will be. Hallelujah!

I feel incredibly lucky to have been mentored by two of the kindest, most thoughtful and compassionate practitioners and seekers I may ever meet. Tracy Walton and Gayle MacDonald. Certainly, I have had many mentors, but these two women are pioneers in the field of oncology massage and are fearless, in the truest, most expansive sense of the word. They lead with love and humility. They have paved the way for all of us who have come behind them. They started touching people with cancer and medically complicated people in the hospital when schools were actually teaching that this was downright dangerous. Their hearts and their basic common sense, rooted in science and deep curiosity told them that not only was it okay to touch these people, it was imperative.

The problem…or the gift, depending on your perspective… with being the first people do something is that you don’t have a map. You have to make it up as you go along. You gather all of the resources available. Books, other practitioners, science, research, feedback, spoken and unspoken, from the people you’re actually touching. It’s a lot of really thoughtful trial and error. It’s about knowing that there is a way to do what you’re doing that will really matter and may even improve the often difficult experience of disease and illness.

It’s an art, really.  You may be more familiar or, let’s face it, more comfortable with the term “evidence-based practice” and that certainly does sound fancier and more fundable and respectable, but really…? It’s about going along with great care and great curiosity and paying attention.  The more we do, the more “evidence” we have that what we’re doing is working…or not. It’s about malleability and a willingness to be wrong and then to go back again and make adjustments.

Any practitioner worth his or her salt is making it up as they go along.  When we go to work every day, we are showing up to the moment. We’re paying attention to what we see, what we feel, what we do…and then to what happens after.  If all of that paying attention starts to reveal a pattern or two or four? We start wondering if we’re making up something that’s worth doing again.  And then…? Maybe we decide it’s so worth doing again that we want to teach other people how to do it.  And then there are more people making it up as they go along and we get new ideas and new ways of doing the things that are now old. This is how our specialty grows and spreads its strong, deep roots.

I’ve been teaching a handful of the “same” courses for the past 8 years or so.  Anyone who has attended these courses will tell you that they’re actually not at all the same after 8 years.  As I teach, I learn.  As I learn, I change.  I see challenge and I invite innovation.  This is what we all do. We say, “How ’bout if we…?” and “It’s hard for me to do it that way, so I do this instead.”

We all scratch our heads and wonder if it’s okay to do it this way instead of that and we get nervous when we walk away from each other knowing that I’m still going to do it the way I do it and you’re still going to do it the way you do it.  When we get nervous, we get small.  When we get small, we get quiet. When we get quiet, it leaves a lot of room for all of us to make up stories.

Stories are powerful.Story  They can destroy and they can create.  When we let them out of our heads and share them, it’s hard for fear and smallness to survive. They shed light.  They expose assumptions.  They show us the road that led us from where we were to the place of nervous then to small then to quiet…and then to separate.

Making it up as you go along means paying attention to what you’re doing. It means remembering that the person under your hands is the most important thing at that moment. Always. It means remembering that it’s hardly ever “about you.” It means staying in the present and keeping up with clinical advances.  It means asking when you don’t understand.  It means inviting dialogue and staying open when that dialogue isn’t what you want it to be.  And as important as all the rest of that is the making of enough space for everybody else to do those same things.

When oncology massage stops bending and changing and growing like this…? I’ll find another job.