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  • A soothing touch during a difficult time

    Volunteer Hilda SantosVolunteer Hilda Santos lends a hand

    When it comes to cancer care, Hilda Santos is happy to lend a hand — if patients lend her one or two of their own.

    Santos has gone through the Hands on Care Program at Dana-Farber's Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living. Volunteers trained at Dana-Farber by the Zakim Center's licensed massage therapists, Santos and other volunteers approach adult patients undergoing chemotherapy infusions and offer them free 15-minute hand massages.

    The service, which was started in 2007, has several goals. In addition to offering patients soothing, pleasant experiences in the midst of treatment, it also gives them someone to talk to — either about their cancer or whatever else is on their minds. For Santos, whose mother died of breast cancer, it is an opportunity to help others going through similar challenges.

    Quietly walking through Dana-Farber's main infusion floors holding a clipboard, a bottle of moisturizing lotion, and a heartwarming smile, Santos approaches patients she believes would be interested. If they are, she checks in with their nurses to make sure they have no medical conditions that would prohibit a hand massage.

    "About half the time patients have a friend or family member with them, but I'm a fresh face," says Santos, who volunteers each Wednesday with the program, a joint venture between the Zakim Center and Volunteer Services. "Once the conversation gets going they may show me photos of their kids, grandkids, and/or pets, or they might just need is a hug. Some people are scared at first to have you touch them, but it's wonderful to see that sense of calm go over them when you start."

    hand massage giving by volunteer Hilda Santos

    Discussion topics vary. The patient may be a mom stressed about going home to young kids and a husband, unsure she can balance it all. An older patient may not know how much longer he or she can go on with treatment, and some people just need a warm hello and blanket rather than a massage. Santos lets each situation guide her, and she now has many "regulars" who look for her every week.

    Although Dana-Farber offers psychosocial support to all patients and families, the Hands on Care Program allows for a more casual connection to a caring individual, as well as an uplifting service. "The main benefit is the relaxation and comfort," says Maria Barbara (Bambi) Mathay, MD, LMT, a nationally certified massage therapist who, along with fellow massage therapist Theresa Ochenkoski, LMT, trains and supervises Santos and other volunteers. "Even the volunteers are amazed how much this can relax someone. Along with the relaxation response come a variety of things; patients might have a decrease in pain, a decrease in anxiety, or a complete change in outlook.

    "In the midst of a long day, this can be an oasis — a short but comforting break to which patients look forward."

    To learn more about this and other volunteer opportunities at Dana-Farber, call 617-632-3307 or email; to learn more about the Zakim Center, call 617-632-3322 or email

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  • Patient Stories

    • patients at an art therapy sessionPatients of all ages share how integrative therapies such as acupuncture and massage help them cope with the challenges of cancer treatment. Watch the video
    • Marlene, a patient who used Zakim Center servicesMarlene describes how the therapies she received at the Zakim Center helped her to regain her quality of life following cancer treatment. Watch the video