Physical touch is an important part of healing, and plays a huge part in the life of a cancer patient.
BY Bonnie Annis PUBLISHED March 09, 2018
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Physical touch is often taken for granted, but scientists are finding it plays a vital role in healing.
Many years ago, I remember reading an article about babies born during World War II. Scientists experimented on a number of orphaned babies. During that time, they observed two sets of infants. One group of babies had all of their vital needs met but in addition to having their physical needs met, they also received the comfort of reassuring words and physical touch. The other set of babies only received care for their daily needs. They did not receive the benefits of kind words or physical touch. Other than having their diapers changed and being given nutrition, these babies were left in cribs all day without any form of communication. They began to lose weight and became sickly while the babies receiving attentive care, grew and thrived. Doctors noted the importance of physical touch and observed the role it played in the happiness and development of these children.
There have been many studies performed since that time on the healing power of touch. Those in the medical field are finding healthful benefits for patients in the form of nonverbal communication such as a pat on the hand, a gentle hug or some form of skin-to-skin contact.
The healing power of physical touch can be measured. Doctors have found, through laboratory tests such as MRIs, that there are evident changes in the patterns of brain activity during touch. Certain types of endorphins are released. These endorphins combat stress hormones, resulting in a sense of relaxation and peace.
Touch is important for those experiencing a health crisis such as being diagnosed with cancer. However, touch is often difficult due to skin hypersensitivity. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause a person to avoid physical contact with others, even though they long for it. So how do we respond in those types of situations?
It’s best to ask the person if he or she would like a hug (or whatever form of physical contact the person intends to give). Although physical touch shows a genuine form of care and concern, it isn’t always welcomed. Some parts of the body may be extremely tender and physical touch may exacerbate skin sensitivity.
For some, physical touch is a welcomed gift. Hugs are a great way of offering hope and reassurance. It’s a way of connecting without saying a word. Physical touch can communicate, “I feel your pain. I see you. I understand what you’re going through.”
Massage therapy is a wonderful way to relieve tension and is often used a part of mind/body wellness programs offered to those affected by cancer. Rubbing, kneading and gently patting the skin help reduce stress and help muscles relax.
The skin is the largest organ of our bodies. Filled with a vast network of nerve endings, our skin acts as the protective barrier between our internal body systems and the outside world.
Skin is composed of several layers. The top layer is called the epidermis. This is the area of skin visible to the naked eye. The next layer is the dermis. This layer contains hair follicles, sweat glands, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, nerve endings, and a variety of touch receptors. The bottom layer of skin is called the subcutaneous tissue. It is composed of fat and connective tissue. Skin is remarkable and can heal rapidly when injured. Without skin to protect our bodies, we’d be subjected to infections and germs every second of the day.
For those going through chemotherapy or radiation, physical touch might be needed, but not given. The patient’s frail or weakened appearance might prevent someone from reaching out to console in a physical way. In this case, its best if the patient learns to state the need for physical affection. It’s always appropriate to express the need or desire for a hug or other form of physical contact.
I’ve witnessed and experienced the power of touch in my own personal healing. During difficult treatment days, an arm on the shoulder, a pat on the hand, or a tender hug meant the world to me. Those kind expressions helped me feel like I mattered.
There were some days, however, when I preferred not to be touched. During radiation treatment, it seemed my skin was hypersensitive. I avoided physical touch as much as possible.
Overall, I feel physical touch was a vital part of my healing process. Without it, I don’t think I would have recovered as quickly as I did.
Most of us crave love and acceptance. What better way to communicate that than by reaching out and touching someone?
Martin comments: While a certain amount of self isolation or social distancing may be wise and common sense during a declared pandemic (or if you actually have a virus), beware: “Social Distancing” is more than just a temporary precaution. In the long term it is dehumanizing. Let’s NOT make it a permanent thing.