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February 3, 2014
Anita Reed Dean’s business card reads “Licensed Massage Therapist,” and it also reads “Balanced Touch,” which is what she offers her cancer patients when there’s nothing else to be done but love them and hug them.
With her frilly dress, long blond locks and kind blue eyes, Anita looks like the youngest 60-year-old on the planet. Maybe she’s not from this planet — she could be an angel from some loving alternate universe.
“My spirit is a kid,” she says “though my patients think I’m an angel. I love life no matter what it throws me.” And what it has thrown her is more than 4,000 hours of treating cancer patients.
When somebody comes into Anita’s massage office, and they know they might die, why do they need a massage?
“For comfort,” she explains, “the relief of anxiety because they’re not getting any.
“Their bodies are already tender, radiated, poked, cut, feeling poisoned, depleted and just plain sad,” says Anita, matter-of-factly. “Years ago when I was in school, we were taught you don’t touch people with cancer because it was said it will spread in the lymph nodes. But as long as my touch is light, compassionate, and I’m there for the person, that’s my main focus now.”
What causes a person to grow up and say, “I’m going to be a massage therapist to people with cancer?”
“I didn’t,” she says. “I went in practice mainly to have an income after being a stay-at-home mom for years. We needed extra income, and my father-in-law got cancer, so it inspired me to think about life. When I received my first massage at (training) school, it suddenly wasn’t just an income — I wanted people to feel like I felt.
“I wanted to care for the people who nobody was touching.”
Anita had been living in New York and built a practice focused on stress relief and muscle soreness. “Then we moved back to Florida, and I approached many doctors and finally connected to Dr. Gail Cooney. Gail came in and liked what I did and asked if I’d like to do massage therapy at Sari (Asher Center for Integrative Cancer Care) about five years ago.”
Anita often treats patients who know they will soon die.
“I talk to them, being careful not to cross boundaries because I’m not a therapist. So I listen to them. And hold that place – that space – of love, compassion, nurturing. I focus on doing no harm, but instead doing conscious and gentle work to give some relief and imitate some level of freedom, no matter how temporary.”
Anita looks away and begins to tear up. “And sometimes I just hold them. I literally hold them. I help them feel safe…decreasing isolation of the patient with all their mental struggles. I try to hush them away.
“I always see people as a whole, not by that piece that’s missing,” Anita exhales and wipes a tear from her cheek. “ Massage is cumulative, and the effects can last and give relief for a couple days. And when they’re in chemo, I tell them to lie down for treatment, breathe, and to take in spirit. Visualize what does it feel like when they’re on ‘Anita’ s table’ and replace that mind set of chemo with my table.”
Lea Jefferson was diagnosed in August of 2012 and needed a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. At Sari Center, Lea had radiation in the a.m. and Anita did massage on her in the afternoons. “After 32 rounds of radiation,” says Jefferson, “I went in to see my doctors and they were blown away because my skin was supple and they could put in an implant. It’s very rare for the skin to be that pliable, but massage changed it all.”
Lea had also just lost her college roommate to breast cancer. “Anita was very spiritual – it was like going to a little slice of heaven. She knew exactly where my grief was. Anita comforted me with healing hands, and she introduced me to coconut oil and aloe vera. Suddenly my skin just ‘stayed’ and the doctors were stunned. I can’t express this enough. I was able to have reconstruction.”
Anita says that “doctor’s deal with cancer and see the patient, doctors hold patients at arm’s length but I teach them to touch themselves, by ‘phluffing the girls’ (bouncing their breasts)… It’s hard to touch a scar or a space that once contained a breast, but they have to touch themselves for internal acceptance. And that’s really hard to do.”
Anita rises to demonstrate, “It’s a gentle loving lifting up as though fluffing a pillow. From underneath and on the sides, ‘phluffing’ inward to midline, and then softly cupping hands around breasts in your palm.
“My husband, Robert, said to me the other day that ‘there is something about you where you can treat people with cancer…where you can wrap your hands around it and you’re not afraid.’ I’ve lost a lot of my people and we’ve really bonded, but my mom always said to me, ‘We’re born and we’re gonna die.’ The part of life that’s my contribution is to help people live the best life they can, in the time they have left.”
When they’re gone do you feel like you go with them? “No,” she pauses, “they’re still with me. When I see a well-dressed woman on the street, I think of my ‘Judy Beauty,’ as she dressed to the nines. When I see a marquee for a ballet, I think of my Ana the dancer. She was one of the first people I treated… Tiny and frail, and hardened from radiation, I could only do hand and foot massage for her. And when I did…” Anita’s jaw trembles, “I would hold her feet and think of all the performances she must have done with those sweet petite feet. Now she dances…in heaven.”
Sari Asher Center for Integrative Cancer Care The Sari Center’s mission is to integrate complementary therapies with traditional medical treatment to enhance the quality of life for people with cancer. The center works with the Palm Beach Cancer Institute and is in the institute’s building at 3401 PGA Blvd., Suite 200, in Palm Beach Gardens.
Anita Reed Dean is a licensed massage therapist. Anita Dean has been in private practice in West Palm Beach since 1996, in addition to her work with the Sari Asher Center for Integrative Cancer Care.