University City

2 friends share the message of massage

Doris Johnson is tired. But she stands outside her home in Charlotte Springs, a retirement community in University City, waiting for Vickie Torrey to drive by.

It's been months since the old friends have seen each other, but when Torrey arrives they pick up where they always do, with a long, tight hug.

Johnson and Torrey have been friends for more than two decades, having worked together what seems like a lifetime ago as social workers for the city of Charlotte.

Johnson, 62, is retired now, and Torrey, who left her career as a social worker years back to follow her passion, travels the world these days teaching massage therapists her specialty: cancer massage.

The two women reconnect every time Torrey comes to Charlotte to teach a seminar. Not just as friends, but as colleagues, of a sort.

Johnson, diagnosed with multiple cancerous tumors in 2008, volunteers to lie on the massage table during Torrey's classes, and to let different sets of fingertips - formerly trained in Swedish, deep tissue or hot stone therapy - learn the lighter touch of cancer massage.

For Johnson, it's a time to forget about the ugly war raging inside her body.

"When you take the massage, you are listening to the music, the birds, the babbling brooks, and you can just imagine yourself sitting there, looking at the different color birds or the waterfalls," said Johnson.

"You have nothing else on your mind. Bills. Work. Stress. It's just inner peace."

For Torrey, it's about spreading the word.

"I want cancer patients to know they can come and get a massage from a trained therapist, because there's so many that don't know," said Torrey.

"It's a nurturing, comforting touch that replaces the invasive touch of medical procedures."

Cancer massage is slowly becoming accepted as a complementary treatment for those with cancer.

Research studies pointing to its benefits in patients have won the backing of the American Cancer Society and of many oncologists in recent years.

Torrey listed advantages: "Pain reduction, reduction of anxiety and depression, stress reduction, decrease in nausea, decrease in insomnia, improvement of mood stages and quality of life. ... It's pretty easy for an oncologist to say, 'I'm going to go ahead and give you a prescription.' "

But massage schools didn't always endorse cancer massage. When Torrey earned her license in 1988, instructors routinely told students not to work on those with cancer.

"We were taught that cancer is counter-indicative for massage, because people didn't know that much about cancer and how cancer was spread," she said.

Although it's become more accepted, few massage schools teach cancer massage to therapists even today, said Torrey.

That is one of the reasons she travels the world, splitting her time between her island cottage near Brazil and her home in the Davis Lake-Eastfield neighborhood of Charlotte.

Much of what Torrey learned in the specialty she had put to use years earlier, working on the integrative medicine team within Carolinas Healthcare System.

In her courses, she explains the pathology of cancer and its treatment options and side effects.

"The training has a lot of medical components in it, because people are still a little skeptical about cancer massage," she said.

Cancer massage takes a lighter touch than other kinds, said Torrey, and avoids massaging over tumor sites or skin compromised by radiation.

Johnson credits her massage sessions with helping her find peace and come to terms with her diagnosis.

"They didn't expect me to be living today. They gave me a couple of months," she said. "Just being able to deal with it, to accept it, is the key to my survival."