Jennifer Ross had always lived an active lifestyle and had been blessed with good health. So when she discovered a lump in her left breast last summer, she contacted her doctor, scheduled a mammogram and was relieved to be told it was just a benign cyst.
But later, after the appearance of second lump and other symptoms — some swelling and tenderness, some reddening and roughening of the skin — she went to a breast specialist who took one look and gave her a very different diagnosis: stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of disease that is often misdiagnosed until it is far progressed, as hers was.
There’s been little talk of a cure, only of delaying the inevitable and maintaining her quality of life.
“I have three children,” Ross said. “The youngest is 15. With a stage 4 diagnosis, all you think about is how do you stay alive as long as you can?” Already, she’s been through a round of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor and slow its spread, followed by a double mastectomy with lymph node removal and then two months of radiation treatment in Boston. She came home at the end of June, exhausted, discouraged and depleted.
That’s when she picked up a newsletter at the Bangor Y, where she was trying to establish a swimming routine, and learned about Healing Touch, a complementary energy therapy similar to the traditional Japanese healing art of Reiki. Like Reiki, Healing Touch uses both light touch and off-the-body techniques to promote energy flow in the body, guided by the energy roadmaps of chakras and meridians to ease blockages and congestion. It’s not a substitute for standard medical treatment. But by freeing and balancing healthy energy in the body, adherents claim to ease pain and anxiety, promote healing and enhance physical, spiritual and emotional wellness.
Unlike Reiki, though, Healing Touch boasts an internationally consistent training program and an accredited licensing exam for practitioners. Developed in the 1980s by a registered nurse, the program uses nursing models of assessment, patient education and documentation to measure effectiveness and points to a growing but still limited body of research that demonstrates its interventions have a positive impact. An independent research review from the University of Minnesota finds that while Healing Touch and other energy-based therapies are difficult to study objectively, there does appear to be an association with pain relief, reductions in stress and anxiety, the easing of pain, anxiety and depression related to cancer treatment, and the healthy healing of wounds and surgical incisions.
Looking for relief and finding it
At the Bangor Y, Health Education Specialist and certified Healing Touch practitioner Leanne Bishop has been offering the energy-flow therapy since 2015, first as an independent contractor and more recently through the Y’s Caring Connections support program for adults with certain kinds of cancer. Before training in Healing Touch, Bishop had studied and practiced Reiki, which she still respects as a healing therapy.
“But I really appreciate this more evidence-based practice,” she said. And she added, it’s easier for some patients and clients to accept the potential benefits of the more mainstream practice of Healing Touch. The therapy is helpful not only for cancer patients, she noted, but for people with other chronic medical conditions, their stressed-out caregivers, or anyone dealing with an overload of stress and anxiety.
“I’ve never been a big believer in complementary therapies,” commented Jen Ross as she stretched out, fully clothed, on the padded treatment table in Bishop’s airy studio in the Y’s Isaac Farrar mansion. But when she got her cancer diagnosis and started treatment, she said, she found herself feeling more open to any intervention that promised relief from her anxiety and discomfort.
“This really has helped,” she said. After just two sessions, she said, she felt less worried, more clear-headed and more in control of her day-to-day emotions. She was ready and eager for this, her third treatment — one of eight hour-long sessions she can receive at no charge through the Caring Connections program as a patient undergoing cancer treatment. Others pay $45 per session.
Bishop tucked a pillow under Ross’ knees, covered her with a light blanket against the breeze from a window-mounted air conditioner and placed a small, cloth pillow over her closed eyes. She paused at the foot of the table with one hand resting lightly on Ross’ right ankle, standing quietly as she merged her own energy with her client’s. Then, using a small wooden pendulum on a string, she scanned Ross’ entire body, pleased as the pendulum swung in a lively circle that, she said, indicated positive energy flow.
“I can tell you’ve been doing some good self-care,” she said to Ross, who smiled. Still, Bishop said, “your sacral chakra is a little lumpy.” Treatment included the gentle placement of her hands on strategic spots on Ross’ body, moving slowly from one location to another, accompanied by Bishop’s own deep breathing to help channel negativity away from her client.
Ross relaxed visibly as the session went on. She was in no hurry to leave, wanting to make the most of this hour of peace and focus. Her goal is to maintain her comfort, independence and quality of life long enough to see her youngest child, who is 15, graduate from high school; to see her middle child, who is 20, through-hike the Appalachian Trail; and to see her eldest, 23, earn his doctorate degree in music.
Even with these long-range goals, Ross knows she must live one day at a time.
“After this, I’m swimming,” she had said before the session started. “I try to swim a mile a day. When I get out of the pool, I say to myself, ‘I can’t be dying today. I just swam a mile.’”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ross’ early symptoms and response.