The tightness in her chest had become unbearable.

Following surgery and radiation to treat breast cancer, Juli Warpenburg thought that she had overcome the worst the disease had in store for her. But the further she got into treatment, so started developing fibrosis, a tightening and hardening of the tissue in her chest.

“It got so bad that my chest muscles would spasm, almost like I was having a heart attack,” she said.

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Not until Warpenburg, a trained massage therapist for Franciscan Health, found a cross-tissue massage therapy that could loosen the scar tissue in her chest did she find relief.

Warpenberg has decided to share her story of how massage helped her through treatment, and present information about the impact that different techniques of massage can improve quality of life for patients. She and other breast cancer survivors will be part of a discussion event focused on oncology massage from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.

The hope is to bring attention at the potential of massage therapy during and after breast cancer treatment.

“People who have been asking, ‘Who is this for?’ It’s really for anybody — massage consumers, patients and survivors, and for people who have lost a loved one to breast cancer,” said Angela Stelljes, oncology massage therapist at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.

“Survivors themselves don’t have that information. They don’t know what it is … They have these things happening, they’d don’t quite know what it is and they don’t even know where to go to have it worked on. I want to educate people on what they might be feeling, and what it means. There might be things out there that makes it easier for them.” —Juli Warpenberg

The event will be an informal panel discussion, where breast cancer survivors share their journeys and talk about their careers in massage therapy.

It is the confluence of Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a week-long celebration of massage therapy.

“These women bring a unique focus to their massage therapy practice,” Stelljes said. “It’s neat to hear from people who have been in the massage therapy field for a while talk about how they personally approach their therapeutic treatments with people.”

Warpenburg had been a massage therapist for five years before being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Though she opted against chemotherapy, she had surgery to remove the tumor, then radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells.

In her efforts to lessen the side effects of the treatment, she found a branch of massage therapy particularly aimed at cancer patients.

“Being a survivor of breast cancer myself, I started to seek therapies to handle issues that not only I was developing, but that I saw was coming up as a result of the treatments people had to survive the disease,” Warpenburg said.

Oncology massage therapy is a branch of traditional massage, modified to deal with the specific issues cancer patients face. Therapists adjust the session length, pressure placed on the body and areas of focus to best remedy the short and long-term complications of cancer treatment.

The methods used by trained oncology massage therapists have been researched and shown to lessen side effects such as fatigue, constipation, anxiety and numbness.

Massage can help people whose lymphatic system has been compromised in cancer treatment by reducing swelling throughout the body.

Therapists can use vibration and other methods to work on scar tissue resulting from surgeries, helping circulation and healing.

“At its core, it’s helping with the side effects of treatment,” Stelljes said. “We all need the dignity of touch; it’s just being able to adjust appropriately to where a patient is at at that given time.”

Stelljes has specialized in oncology massage for the past four years. Her focus is helping those who have developed tingling or numbness in their hands or feet from radiation or chemotherapy.

She can even work on radiated breast tissue if the patient wants.

“You go through cancer treatment, and the thought is that you’re through it and then you’re done. But there’s lingering side effects that can last for the rest of your life,” she said. “So it’s not just being trained to work with patients while they’re going through treatment.”

When Stelljes was attending school to become a licensed therapist, she remembers reading briefly about massage with cancer treatments.

But the literature didn’t provide much guidance in terms of modifying a typical massage to better suit those suffering through cancer treatment, Stelljes said.

In 2007, a group of massage therapists formed the Society for Oncology Massage. The idea was to provide standards of education for therapists, so that their practice could better help those who need it.

“It’s still considered a specialty in the field of massage therapy, because unfortunately, it’s not covered deeply in school,” Stelljes said. “A lot of that has to do with the way massage therapy and the field is dealt with here in the U.S.”

But as more and more research is done into the effects of oncology massage, the medical community is becoming more open to the practice.

Inside the new Cancer Center at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, patients can find two massage rooms, a salon and an acupuncture area in their specialty Oasis clinic.

Local hospitals such as the Simon Cancer Center at Indiana University Health and Community Health Network have also implemented massage in efforts to improve quality of care.

The hope is that by learning how the technique can help those who have dealt with cancer, it can become a more widespread and widely accepted form of treatment.

“I was lucky because I was already in the manual therapy world. I was fortunate in wanting to do that type of analysis, and I try to educate as many people as I can. I integrate as many therapies as I can.

“Survivors themselves don’t have that information. They don’t know what it is,” Warpenburg said. “They have these things happening, they’d don’t quite know what it is and they don’t even know where to go to have it worked on. I want to educate people on what they might be feeling, and what it means. There might be things out there that makes it easier for them.”

If you go

Celebrating Breast Cancer Survivorship and Massage

What: A panel discussion with breast cancer survivors who are also massage therapists, focusing on their breast cancer journeys and how that has informed their massage therapy career.

When: 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Franciscan Health Indianapolis Center for Women and Children, 8111 South Emerson Ave. Enter in Entrance 2.

Cost: Free, though registration is encouraged. To register, call (317) 586-0495.

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.