Why the spa industry still has a lot of learning to do when it comes to supporting cancer patients

business insights & tips spa & salon industry news understanding your clients Mar 26, 2021

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When it comes to providing therapies to anyone with cancer, the spa industry has undergone seismic change over the past 10 years. Thousands of therapists and spa businesses have taken it upon themselves to seek out training and provide information to clients that ensures safe and appropriate treatments that can make a real difference to wellbeing at a time when we need it the most. However, there is still much to be done.

When we have the right knowledge, we can make a positive difference

Recently we spoke to one of our own oncology massage trained therapists, who had been recommended to a client. The lady was undergoing chemotherapy and was experiencing terrible trouble sleeping since her cancer diagnosis. She was nervous about having a massage because she had previously been recommended to another practitioner who, knowing her medical history, had proceeded to deliver a deep tissue massage, resulting in extensive bruising.

It is not uncommon for chemotherapy patients to bruise easily, and in addition we know that chemotherapy can cause extreme sensitivity to touch. As a result, this client had been in a lot of pain post treatment, which makes her anxiousness completely understandable. Fortunately, our therapist was able to discuss the touch therapy with her, explain the process and make it clear that she could stop any time. By the end, the client had not only enjoyed her treatment but also went on to have much improved sleep for the next few days.

Despite the happy ending, this story is heart breaking for those of us in the industry, because as therapists all we ever want to do is provide care. The fear of causing harm is one of the big barriers to providing treatments to anyone with or recovering from cancer. However, we also know that complementary therapies provide enormous benefits and relief to cancer patients, when they’re done appropriately.

Industry leaders have been inspired to make changes

We would all like to see stories like these confined to history, and in many places they have been. Elliott Wakefield, Group Marketing Director at The Alexander Hotels collection, whose therapists have trained with Jennifer Young, spoke about his early career before joining the group: “I remember working in some spas where the phone would ring, and it would be someone who had cancer asking to book a treatment and the default reaction would be ‘best not’. I found that heart breaking.”

He is not the only one who remembers similar situations. Abi Selby is the Founder of, now the largest spa booking agency in Europe with a reach of hundreds of thousands of customers and more than 750 spas in the UK and overseas. She has previously discussed the moment when she became aware of the depth and damage that this discrepancy in the industry can cause, recalling an issue in 2010, not long after the company was founded. At the time, her mobile number was on the website as the emergency out of hours contact for customers:

“I had this one call that when I picked up the phone, there was a lady sobbing. She had booked through us but hadn’t mentioned that she had had cancer. At the spa, someone said: ‘I’m sorry love, but I can’t touch you with a barge pole.”

This incident sparked the beginning of’s Safe Hands for Cancer initiative (formerly called Recovery Retreats), through which, the team has worked tirelessly to spread the message and make it easier to book spa breaks for anyone with cancer.

Sue Harmsworth, the founder of ESPA and the recently launched SATCC (Standards Authority for Training and Cancer Care) has also been instrumental in changing the information and the attitudes around spa treatments for cancer patients. In an interview in 2018 she said:

“Now, more and more, doctors are seeing the benefits of complementary therapies but all this business about the lymph nodes [the belief that stimulating them could encourage the spread of cancer] was scaring therapists out of their wits. Therapists are carers, if they’re not confident it’s not good for anyone. We have to change several attitudes – the spas, allowing therapists to do the right training, but where we can most easily affect change is with the therapists themselves. That will change the availability of therapies pre-, during and post-cancer treatment.”

The spa industry has changed but we can do more

Through the work of individuals like Abi, Sue, and others, it’s important to point out that a lot really has changed in the last decade. As you may know, at Jennifer Young, our own work began when Jennifer launched her first range of skincare products for cancer patients at the request of nurses at her local hospital. That journey then evolved, encompassing not only suitable treatment protocols so that therapists can feel confident in adapting and delivering spa treatments to anyone with, being treated for or recovering from cancer, but also addressing legal and logistical challenges ranging from risk assessments to tackling the insurance industry.

However, spas that are able to treat cancer patients are still the exception and not the norm. The goal, as Richard Clay, Senior Product Manager at, said in a recent interview is: “hopefully there will be a tipping point where it’s unusual if [spas] don’t offer that experience [oncology treatments].” It’s also important that we ensure cancer patients, and their loved ones, have the information they need in order to find trained therapists who can provide meaningful, effective and safe therapies (which is why we also created our Spa & Therapist Finder).

All of us in the industry want to make sure that we provide the best care and support for our clients as possible and make tales of painful treatments or discrimination, a thing of the past. With the delays in cancer diagnosis through Covid-19 lockdowns, the number of people needing wellbeing support is only set to rise. We have it within our power to provide relief and comfort at an impossible time in someone’s life. As therapist, Anna Garnett says: “It’s such a gift to be able to offer to anyone experiencing cancer,” and it’s a gift we can give to many more people.


Just like Elliott, Abi, Sue, Richard and Anna, you too can make positive change and learn the skills required to provide meaningful, effective and safe therapies; creating an inclusive and diverse client base. Simply click here to find more information about the Jennifer Young postgraduate diplomas.  

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