Cancer & spas: Can we change the status quo?

How Abi Wright, founder of is changing the relationship between spas and cancer patients. Over to Aby.

Cancer, despite affecting one in every two people, is still a word that we flinch over. You would have thought with its prevalence we would be a little better equipped to deal with it, but historically we are tight lipped and it’s that attitude that made the spa industry’s relationship with cancer patients all but non existent. That is until co-founder Abi Wright set up Recovery Retreats, spa days and breaks for anyone with or recovering from cancer.

Traditionally, and still at many UK spas, if you have had treatment for cancer within the last two years you are not eligible for most massages, swimming pools and Jacuzzis are out of bounds for fear of infection, and some spas will refuse to treat you altogether. Some of the issue is fact, and some of it is fear, but the bottom line is that until now it hasn’t been handled well.

The fact of the matter is that there are facilities that you are best to avoid; when you are undergoing chemotherapy in particular your immune system is compromised, so swimming pools and Jacuzzis are ill advised in case of infection. What’s also true however, is that with the right training and the right touch, spa treatments can be a powerful source of wellbeing at an extremely hard time.

Speaking to Dr. Peter Mackereth, the Clinical Lead at the NHS Christie Foundation, who provide complementary therapies to cancer patients, he highlights that: “we talk a lot about resilience – building people’s resources for long term health. Controlling cortisol (stress hormone) levels is important as that can have a big impact on your resilience, and even when people have an ongoing illness evidence suggests that life expectancy can be increased by reducing stress levels, which spas and spa treatments can actively contribute to.”

When one of’s own clients, Dorothy, visited Rockliffe Hall on a Recovery Retreat following treatment for breast cancer, she encapsulated the importance of such a simple but powerful experience, saying: “My body seemed not to be my own but simply something that had things done to it which were consistently unpleasant and painful… so imagine my delight at the thought of staying in a five star hotel where I could be the old me, the me who could enjoy the pleasures of a beautiful hotel and beauty treatments, the me who was like everyone else.”

From diagnosis and through treatment, the body experiences so much change going through cancer, from alopecia and changes in weight to surgery, paleness, nausea, vomiting, taste changes and loss of energy. Through it all, many people report feeling that their body no longer seems like their own. A loss of identity, depression, body dysmorphia and a negative self image are all common side effects, and understandably so. They are often forgotten in the trauma of treating the illness however, but to consider them is a vital part of treating the whole person, and however small it seems, spa treatments, make-up, skincare and clothing can all play their role in that.

Where talking is powerful therapy, touch helps to heal in a different way. Having interviewed and spoken to spa therapists over a number of years, many of whom have treated patients with or recovering from cancer, the story is very similar. It’s not uncommon for someone who has been through the trials and tribulations of chemotherapy and surgery to find themselves crying during a massage as a form of emotional release, such is the power of kind and caring touch after the mind and body has been through so much.

Whereas before, turning up at a spa when you had cancer was often a choice between lying about one’s health, or risk being turned away from therapies, what has done over the last eight years, and continues to do today with ever increasing vigour, is provide a space in which people can book spa days and breaks for themselves or loved ones, safe in the knowledge that they will be looked after. Treatments are safe, consultations are over the phone before you visit so you don’t have to discuss your health at reception, and the emphasis is on what you can do rather than what you can’t. They can’t stop your immune system from being compromised by chemotherapy, but they can provide safe spa treatments and a chance to enjoy your day just like anyone else.

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