Meet Joan

Joan Rau, licensed massage therapist
I began my career as a massage therapist in 1996, utilizing traditional, integrative massage techniques, and these methods remain an important part of my general practice. In recent years, I have been working more and more in oncology massage, a special approach to massage developed for cancer patients. Read on to learn the story of my work in integrative massage and oncology massage.

Integrative Massage
The first time I received a professional massage, I remember getting up off the table, looking in the mirror, and just standing there touching my face, feeling so transported that I had to make sure I was still here in the world. “What just happened to me?” I wondered. And then a conviction: “I want to do this. I want to help people feel like I’m feeling right now.”

So, in 1995 I entered the Atlanta School of Massage, and, soon after, I started up my private practice. I’ve been trained and am experienced in many forms of massage including Swedish, deep tissue, neuromuscular, lymphatic drainage, craniosacral, and Reiki, and I’ve become one of the leading oncology massage therapists in the Southeast. There’s further education and training behind all that, but also my own curiosity, research, observations, and determination to understand each individual client who comes to me and to figure out how best to help them. After more than 15 years as a professional massage therapist, I still get a little nervous when I first work on someone who has never before had a massage. I want their first experience to be as wonderful as mine was.

I come from a big family of caregivers, and there’s a little bit of each of my parents in my approach to massage therapy. My mom was very intuitive; she would always seek out the people who needed her most and find a way to help them. My father, and my grandfather on my mother’s side, taught me the importance of doing a job well or not doing it at all. To what I learned from them I add my own explorative approach to the world around me — a fascination with venturing into the unknown to discover new approaches to my work and to my life.

I take great satisfaction from working with clients who come to me with a real challenge, people who haven’t found relief in the textbook treatments, people who push me to explore beyond what I already know. I relish the combination of intuition, research, and exploration that such clients need. I love working with clients to discover together what’s going on and how we can best bring them to a place of better health. When we find our way, together, to heightened awareness and well-being, it’s all the more fulfilling for the extra effort it took.

I can almost feel it, almost see the awareness in that special quietness that comes over a client after their massage. The wheels are turning very quietly for them. They’ve been displaced and reconnected. I love seeing that wash over them, because I still remember what it felt like that first time for me, touching my face as I looked in the mirror, realizing that, sure, I had been feeling ok, but suddenly I knew I could feel so much better.

Oncology Massage
I trashed my first opportunity to learn about oncology massage. Really. I came home from work one day, started flipping through the mail, and tossed a continuing education postcard into the trash, not interested in the course it advertised on its front. Fortunately, it landed with the flip side facing up, and I saw information about a class by Tracy Walton, one of the pioneers of oncology massage. I quickly reached into the trash can and rescued the card.

I’d wondered how massage therapy could be adapted for cancer patients since I was studying at the Atlanta School of Massage, in 1995-96. Back then, before the development of specialized oncology massage techniques, there was a fear that massage might somehow make things worse, and the conventional wisdom in the field was that cancer patients should not receive massage. (The same was true of pregnant women, another group for which we have since developed specialized massage techniques.) But at the time, I knew a lot of people dying of cancer, and I knew these people needed to be touched. The only touch they were getting was the sharp point of the needle.

Well, time went by, and the science of cancer treatment and massage therapy progressed. I kept coming back to the question because it was showing up on my table. People undergoing cancer treatment came to me seeking help, and I wanted to be able to address it. My dad’s ethic was in my head: “Know what you’re doing. Do it right.” So I started looking around again for answers. Fortunately, I rescued the answers from the trash.

Walton and Gail MacDonald are two of the early originators of oncology massage I encountered. They both adapted traditional massage techniques to make them safe and effective for the specific needs of cancer patients, and they compared notes and ideas early on. MacDonald literally wrote the book on oncology massage, and Walton wrote some important early papers and now writes a regular column on developments in the field. I took Walton’s class in 2008, became part of the first wave of practitioners, and a charter member of the Society for Oncology Massage. I’ve since worked as one of Walton’s teaching assistants in oncology massage classes across the country, and I often speak with newly graduated massage therapists who have questions about the field.

Of course, I’m only one person with one pair of hands, so I’ve been looking for ways to share the benefits of oncology massage more broadly. I’m in the process of bringing to Georgia a program called “Touch, Caring and Cancer,” which teaches caregivers and partners safe and effective ways to give their loved ones some basic oncology massage. The program came out of research developed by William Collinge and funded by the NIH. The study found that a layperson giving such massage for 20 minutes, three times a week, could reduce a cancer patient’s fatigue, insomnia, and use of pain medication.

When I first learned about the NIH results, I thought, “That’s so cool!” When I tell friends about “Touch, Caring and Cancer” and about my plans to teach it, they sometimes ask me if I’m talking myself out of a job. Well, maybe, but I can’t see everybody, and people in underserved communities often can’t afford or don’t have access to professional massage therapy. So if there’s a way that ordinary folks can help their loved ones, and if it’s a simple matter of teaching them a few basic, safe techniques through the program, then I want to be a part of it.

My growing oncology massage practice is deeply satisfying for me. At last I have the tools to address the needs of the cancer patients showing up on my table, the people who I had so long wanted to help. It is deeply rewarding to ease someone’s journey through cancer treatment and recovery, whether I am helping them reconnect with their body after surgery, lower their anxiety, or simply get a good night’s sleep. My partner is a doctor; she saves children’s lives every day. I can’t do that, but I can help a cancer patient who hasn’t slept in a week get a good night’s rest. That means a lot to me, and I know it means even more to them.

Before your first session,
please fill out client forms
and bring them to your first
session with me.

Over the last 30 years I have been treated by MDs, osteopaths, and physical therapists. Joan's therapy has proven to have been by far the best value of any.
- L.H. , Decatur

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