A Little About The Hand to Heart Project
Submitted by Steve Gordon, LMT, Executive Director
I had the good fortune to be connected with The Hand to Heart Project immediately after my diagnosis of breast cancer. At the time I was 35, and though I had had many massages before, I was surprised by how big a difference it made in my process to have the support of trained massage therapists.
Of course, those are not the circumstances I wanted, but what a relief it was to be able to get massage work free of charge while I processed the diagnosis, healed from the surgery, and dealt with the beginning of long-term treatment. The organization is flexible and its staff are kind, willing to travel quite a long way to come to my home. Out of all the wonderful things I could say about Hand to Heart folks, one I want to be sure to mention is their balance of serious, heartfelt presence in the face of suffering with an ability to bring lightness and even occasionally humor to the difficult world of having cancer.
They’ve witnessed and helped lots of folks through treatment, and that’s evident–the practitioners show up in ways that meet me where I’m at, emotionally, physically, and socially. I hope that more and more people dealing with cancer, of all ages, can learn about Hand to Heart early in their process and benefit from this service.
Just over 15 years ago, in late June of 2007, a new nonprofit program called The Hand to Heart Project made its first visit to an Upper Valley resident. Hopes were high for the program, which offered free in-home massage to people with cancer, but nothing about that first visit hinted at what was to come.
Hand to Heart started with two massage therapists who were available to people in about 20 towns. Most of our clients back then came via referral from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center or a local visiting nurse agency. Money to support the program (we’re an independent nonprofit and do our own fund raising) wasn’t exactly pouring in, but we had strong early support from a couple of family foundations, including the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, and from a small number of local individuals.
Those first several years saw Hand to Heart remaining small and local to the Upper Valley. Over time, we added a few towns on the outskirts of our region, and eventually added a couple more massage therapists to the program. Still, there were no major changes. Until a couple of years ago.
A sharp increase in financial support began to present us with the challenge to do more than we had been doing, so Hand to Heart started to grow. We added new regions and more massage therapists, and today The Hand to Heart Project has more than a dozen massage therapists offering the service of massage and compassionate touch to people with cancer and to their caregivers in more than 100 towns.
This is far beyond what we could have hoped for, or even conceived of, 15 years ago. What one family member of an early client called “a small miracle of suffering made easier through healing touch and presence” is no longer so small. We have clients in Orford and in Bennington, VT. In Enfield, and in Swanzey, NH. In Woodstock, VT, and New London.
Early in our history, many people had the mistaken impression that we would see only people who had incurable cancer, or who were in hospice and nearing the end of life. We’ve worked hard to dispel that impression, to make clear that if you have a cancer diagnosis, you likely qualify. (We aren’t aiming to work with people who just had a minor skin cancer removed, for instance, but if you have cancer and will have to receive at least some treatment, check in with us.) Even an early-stage breast cancer, for instance, perhaps treatable with a few weeks of radiation, can be a frightening experience.
Most people can probably appreciate that massage helps with physical pain from injured or tight muscles and joints, and the experience of cancer treatment can mean a significant amount of such discomfort. We love that we can help clients with pain, but that is just part of what makes our program valuable to our clients. In addition to physical discomfort, people with cancer face emotional and spiritual stress, which often is much worse. It can be, as the poet and theologian John O’Donohue wrote, “a time of dark invitation, beyond a frontier that you did not expect.” Life turns on a dime with a cancer diagnosis. One minute you are going in one direction, and the next you are pulled in another. Read the testimonials on our website (handtoheartproject.org) and you will understand the value of a visit from someone who will just be with you — without judgment, without trying to fix anything, listening, talking or in silence.
Lyme and surrounding towns have always been part of the core of our service area. We’ve had many clients in Lyme, and have received generous support from some residents of the town. We would love to have more of both. We figure we have another fifteen years in us, at least.
If you have questions or interest in the program, you can contact us through the website or Facebook, or at (603) 542-8367.
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Manager of Program Development
CommunityCare of Lyme